By LAWRENCE M. O'ROURKE
May 09, 2005
But don't necessarily look for an earth-shattering overhaul of Social Security that would rile the political landscape.
Even so, President Bush could get more than he bargained for if the retirement package produced by Thomas, a California Republican and chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, ever reaches his desk.
It's possible, but yet unclear, if the Thomas package will include the president's plan to "carve out" money from Social Security taxes into voluntary private individual accounts.
Some Republicans, and many Democrats, would prefer an alternate proposal by Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., former Social Security subcommittee chairman.
Shaw would use tax incentives to encourage individuals to create "add-on" private accounts. He would not build those accounts, as the president would, on revenue from Social Security taxes.
According to congressional Republicans familiar with Thomas' thinking, the Thomas plan might include a portion of the president's rewritten plan. That would cut Social Security benefits for people with higher retirement income. Others say that in the end Thomas will endorse the essence of the Bush private accounts approach, including no changes for those 55 and older.
While Thomas struggles to produce a retirement package that makes Social Security solvent without igniting a political firestorm, conservatives intend to hold the feet of Thomas and other congressional Republicans to the fire over private Social Security accounts.
"If private accounts are not in the package, we'll walk away from it," said Michael Tanner, a Social Security specialist at the Cato Institute.
One of Thomas' goals, said Tanner, is to place a retirement bill that appeals to conservatives high on the agenda before Senate Republicans produce a more moderate bill.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the Finance Committee chairman, said that private accounts will not pass unless they get Democratic support, which for now is not in the cards.
Thomas, a former college professor, is talking these days like a man determined to shake up the way Americans get ready all their lives for retirement. If Thomas succeeds, he might well create a legacy that could make Bush's private-accounts proposal small by comparison.
Of course, the announcement by Thomas that he intends to start hearings this week and produce a legislative blockbuster by early June may be slightly premature.
After Thomas spoke, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., cautioned that the GOP will not rush into considering anything until there is a consensus that it is right _ shorthand for saying that Republican leaders won't trot out any bills until they know they've got the votes to pass them.
But that won't stop Thomas, who has the reputation for effective dealmaking but also the ability to irritate his political colleagues by his irascibility and authoritarianism.
He made his first definitive move of the year on Social Security as the Bush initiative has floundered and as congressional Republicans sense that Democrats have seized the upper hand in the debate.
Thomas, a realist at vote counting, said he would welcome Democratic support, but he is not counting on it. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Republicans won't get the votes of Democrats until they take Bush's private-accounts plan off the table.
Treasury Secretary John Snow said that the Bush administration seeks Democratic support. "The response has not been anything like what we had hoped for, but we are going to continue to reach out. We are going to continue to talk to people," Snow said on a Pittsburgh radio talk show.
In a meeting with reporters, Thomas was circumspect about the Bush plan, noting that he has long favored private retirement accounts.
In an interview on CNBC's "Kudlow & Company," Thomas said that private accounts "certainly aren't the single thing that we need to add, but I they're a very important component."
Thomas conceded that private accounts will not make Social Security solvent, one of the president's goals.
In his meeting with reporters, Thomas suggested that just focusing on private accounts might not be enough as the leading edge of the baby boomers nears retirement age and as Social Security in about a dozen years faces paying out more in benefits than it takes in through payroll taxes.