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GOP Pitches New Ideas to Revamp Social Security

June 22, 2005|Warren Vieth and Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In an effort to overcome congressional opposition to Social Security restructuring, Republicans reported progress Tuesday on legislative proposals that departed from President Bush's approach to allow workers to open individual investment accounts.

A Senate Republican said he had received encouragement from Bush to introduce legislation that would shore up the system's finances without creating personal accounts. At the same time, Republicans appeared to be coalescing around a separate proposal to create individual accounts and to fund them by diverting money from Social Security's temporary surpluses.

Although the signals emanating from Congress and the White House seemed to conflict, independent analysts said they interpreted the activity as a sign that movement on some kind of Social Security legislation was possible this year.

"It's a start," said Michael Tanner, a Social Security specialist at the conservative Cato Institute. "We were in a position where things were so bogged down that nothing was going to move. Shuffling the deck and getting some new ideas on the table offer a chance to open this debate up again."

The movement reflected a new resolve on the part of Republicans to try to overcome the partisan deadlock that had blocked Bush's biggest second-term domestic policy priority. But there was no sign of Democratic support for the approaches that seemed to be gathering steam among congressional Republicans.

The president wants Congress to approve Social Security legislation this year that would accomplish two objectives: close the long-term gap between payroll tax collections and benefit payouts, and let workers born after 1949 divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private stock and bond accounts that they would control. It would be possible to do one without the other, but Bush has insisted that both are essential.

Most Republicans support individual accounts, but some are wary of the benefit reductions that would be needed to ensure solvency. Democrats have said they might be willing to consider solvency legislation, but only if Bush took private accounts off the table first.

The standoff has stymied action in the Senate, where Republicans hold 55 of 100 seats but need 60 votes to end a Democratic filibuster.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said one potential solution had emerged during a working lunch at the White House attended by Bush and Senate Republicans. He said Bush had spoken approvingly of his plan to introduce a bill that addressed Social Security's long-term solvency but did not provide for personal accounts.

"He indicated that I should go forward and do that. And I'm grateful to have him do that, even though his own preference would be to have personal accounts included," Bennett told reporters after the White House session.

"I like your bill," he quoted Bush as telling him.

Bennett said he too supported individual accounts but had become convinced they should be considered in separate legislation. He said he decided on the approach after concluding that Democrats were unwilling to support personal accounts under any circumstances.

White House officials insisted Bush's position had not shifted and that he would continue to press for congressional action this year on legislation dealing with personal accounts and the system's solvency. But they also expressed hope that Bennett's approach might crack a solid wall of Democratic opposition.

"Democrats now have an opportunity to walk the walk," White House Communications Director Nicole Devenish said in an interview on CNN's "Inside Politics" program. "They've been talking the talk about considering Social Security reform if it were a bill that didn't include accounts. I think this puts the ball back in their court."

In both houses, there were signs of growing support for a different legislative proposal that would divert a portion of Social Security revenues into personal accounts as long as the system was running a surplus, but would keep them in the Social Security trust fund when benefit payouts began to exceed payroll tax collections.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), lead author of the bill, planned to introduce it in the Senate on Thursday. He picked up two more GOP cosponsors Tuesday -- Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho -- in addition to his original cosponsors, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

In the House, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) confirmed that he and two other Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee -- Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sam Johnson of Texas -- were discussing a plan to join together behind a similar proposal.

Bush discussed Social Security during a lunch at which Senate Republicans voiced concerns about a number of contentious issues, including the difficulty of quelling the insurgency in Iraq and the stalled nomination of John R. Bolton to become U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

On Iraq, Bennett said one senator asked whether the war "was descending into another Vietnam."

The president, he said, urged the lawmakers "to pay attention to the generals" who were reporting progress in training Iraqi security forces.

"The president made a clear point that unlike LBJ in Vietnam, he's not going to try to micromanage the war," he said.

Staff writers Edwin Chen and Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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