SACRAMENTO — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bill Press, acknowledging that he may be stepping into political quicksand, said Thursday that he favors a "means test" that would limit Social Security benefits for higher income retirees.
The former television commentator, who quit his job at KABC-TV this week to launch his campaign, said limits on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs may be the best way to cut the federal deficit.
"There are too many sacred cows," Press declared during a luncheon with reporters. "The alternative is Democrats going around saying they will raise taxes. That is equally bankrupt."
Limit Not Specified
Under his plan, cost-of-living increases added annually to Social Security checks would go only to those who can pass the "means test"--that is those whose income from all sources is below a certain threshold. Press, however, declined to specify the income limit although earlier he noted that most entitlement programs were meant to help those "at or near the poverty line."
Describing himself as an "outsider" battling "old-time politicians," Press said his intent is to preserve "full benefits for those Americans who need them the most" while curbing "welfare for the rich."
The issue of Social Security has proved to be an explosive one for many politicians who have proposed changes to the New Deal-era program. Usually it is Republicans who are making such proposals, much to the delight of Democrats who have turned them into potent political weapons in attracting elderly voters.
In this case, Press made the proposal in response to questions about how he differs from his rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, and from incumbent Republican Pete Wilson.
Elderly Voters Courted
McCarthy, who has made a point of courting elderly voters, has argued that Social Security benefits should not be tinkered with as part of any deficit-cutting program.
Conversely, Wilson, like Press, has favored changes to the Social Security system, and on occasion those efforts left him in considerable hot water.
During his 1982 campaign against then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Wilson came under a firestorm of criticism for proposing what amounted to a voluntary Social Security system for workers under 45 years of age. Then two years ago, Wilson supported a presidential deficit-reduction plan to scale back Social Security payments by limiting cost-of-living increases to 2%.
Asked about the similarities between the Wilson-supported legislation and his own proposal, Press said: "It's an idea whose time has come."
While Press conceded that his proposal is likely to draw heat, he said the nation's "fiscal crisis is so severe that we have to look at everything." He cautioned, however, that an across-the-board tax increase should not be considered unless cuts are made first in defense spending and foreign aid.
Besides limits on Social Security, Press said Congress should attack the deficit by ordering cutbacks in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") defense program and by reducing the amount spent to defend Japan and the nations of Western Europe.
"I'm not suggesting that we abandon them," he said. "But these were commitments made in 1945, and they reflect a different world."