House urged to take lead on Social Security

Conservative House Republicans, beset with growing distrust of the Senate, are urging the House leadership to jump ahead of the Senate on Social Security reform and pass a bill based on large personal retirement accounts and no tax increases or cuts in benefits.

They also want House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and House Majority Tom DeLay to say publicly that any bill sent over from the Senate that doesn’t meet all these requirements will not be taken up in the House.

“It is imperative now that the House pass a Social Security reform that reflects Republican principles,” said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who leads a group of about 100 conservative House Republicans. “It’s not imperative that we do something. It is imperative that Congress does the right thing, at least in one chamber.”

There are signs that the House Republican leadership might go along with this new strategy, because they, too, worry that the White House and the Senate are giving conflicting signals on what legislation is acceptable.

“The Senate version is all pain, no gain — benefits cuts, tax increases and no personal accounts,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican.

Conservatives complain that with Senate Republicans deeply divided over the issue, the Bush administration has further clouded the picture by saying that personal retirement accounts don’t solve a looming solvency problem for Social Security and that raising the cap of the program’s withholding tax on workers’ incomes is “on the table.”

“I call on the House leadership to move a bill to the floor, take the lead and send real Social Security reform to the Senate, where the Republicans will either have to pass it or see the Democrats kill it by the procedure they call filibuster,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.

Mr. McHenry argued that the House “has bold conservative leadership, and it’s time for us to use it.”

“We can’t wait for the Senate to mess this up,” he said.

Mr. DeLay yesterday that he agrees with his fellow conservatives.

Mr. Hastert has publicly endorsed a Republican bill by New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan that would allow about half of the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax to go into a worker’s personal account. Workers could pick from a list of approved investment funds managed by firms regulated by the government.

Some Senate conservatives privately agree with their House counterparts that the Social Security debate has swirled out of control and that the situation is now playing into the hands of Democrats, who adamantly oppose partial privatization of Social Security. These conservatives say the only way to save the situation is for the House to pass a private-accounts bill and let the Democrats take the blame for blocking Senate passage.

“When and if the Democrats kill Social Security reform, it becomes the Democrat’s problem to solve, and we can then move on to tax reform and other important issues,” Mr. King said. “I agree with the Democrats on one thing: Social Security is not an immediate crisis. We have a window that will allow for a few more Republican senators to take their seats before we are compelled to try again.”

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