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Social Security overhaul still moving, but barely
McClatchy Newspapers


June 28, 2005

WASHINGTON - Overhaul of Social Security is a work in progress. But it is caught in a lollapalooza of a traffic jam.

A few Republican members of Congress have put forth proposals, but the main players - including President Bush - have yet to put detailed plans on the bargaining table.

Democrats have offered no plan at all. And they are determined to keep it that way, preferring to bash the president and GOP ranks in Congress.

One thing has become clear: Social Security remains a very touchy political topic and, as the president told a recent Social Security rally, "Some in Washington wish I hadn't brought it up."

The key figure on Social Security overhaul in Congress, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., is expected to raise the curtain this week on his plan, an ambitious package designed to preserve Social Security and expand private saving for retirement through tax credits.

Another key member of Congress, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is putting final touches on a plan that might include an increase in the full retirement age to 69, a change in the annual cost of living adjustment formula, and some form of means testing for benefits.

Proposals by the president, Thomas and Grassley would get close scrutiny, but that alone could push everything back into next year or later because there's not much time left on the 2005 legislative calendar.

Though none of the players want to say it, the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are moving at a pace that day by day makes it less likely that there will even be a floor vote this year on the president's No. 1 priority - creation of voluntary private retirement accounts paid for by diverted payroll taxes.

And if there's no agreement this year, many political analysts say, there's little chance that Congress will take it up next year - when there's a mid-term congressional election.

And after that, it's anybody's guess when the White House and Congress will again put Social Security high on their agenda.

Any delays move decisions of what to do about Social Security much closer to the first critical date - 2017, when the system is projected to begin paying out more in benefits than it takes in through payroll taxes.

Republicans run into a dilemma when devising plans. The president has called for voluntary partial privatization for those under age 55. But Democrats have successfully demonized the word "privatization" to the point that Republicans don't even want to use it.

That was the case last week when groups of congressional Republicans put forward legislation that would allow Americans to set up small private accounts - for a decade.

"This is not a comprehensive solution to the problems facing Social Security right now," conceded Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of the sponsors. "This is a part, not all of the solution."

The Democratic camp was immediate in condemning the proposal.

"The latest legislation being offered on Capitol Hill is a political proposal designed to save face, not a policy proposal designed to save Social Security," said Barbara Kennelly, a former House Democrat who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats are delighted to have Bush and Republican Social Security plans to talk about over the July 4 recess. Pelosi has encouraged Democrats to speak loudly on "the perils of privatization." And Democrats are under no obligation to defend their lack of a plan, she contends.

Vice President Dick Cheney lit into the Democrats for refusing to surface a plan. "The leadership has made this a partisan issue," Cheney said in an interview with CNN. "So there are no Democratic ideas being put forward by Democratic members of Congress."

"It is time to stop putting forward gimmicks to privatize Social Security," countered Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Take this bad idea off the table and join us in strengthening Social Security."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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