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Democrats vying on Social Security

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Several rank-and-file Democrats are suggesting alternative ideas to President Bush's Social Security reform concept, despite their leadership's argument that there isn't a need to offer a counterproposal right now.

Rep. Dennis Moore, Kansas Democrat, and Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat, have each crafted versions of "lock box" bills aimed at ensuring that Social Security trust fund money is not diverted for other uses.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, has been shopping the idea that Congress could pay for Social Security's projected shortfall over the next 75 years simply by refraining from extending some of Mr. Bush's tax cuts.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, says that now is not the right time for a specific proposal, but that Democrats know that Social Security's future financial problems must be addressed and will do so.

"I don't think it is useful at this point in time for me to start discussing individual ideas," Mr. Hoyer said. "We are prepared to come up and will come up with responsible suggestions. We want to see what the president suggests. He has outlined that, but we still don't have a presidential proposal on the table."

Democrats argue that Mr. Bush's plan to let some workers invest part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts would require massive federal borrowing and result in big benefits cuts.

They say it amounts to privatizing Social Security -- an idea that Mr. Hoyer said is "opposed overwhelmingly by the Democratic Party and by the American people, and the polls suggest that very clearly."

But Republicans say Democrats are foolish to continue attacking Mr. Bush's Social Security ideas without offering any of their own.

"I think the American people across the country realize there's a problem with Social Security, and they want it to be fixed," said Dan Allen, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

"Democrats have decided they're going to stand on the sidelines and launch barbs."

The Senate Republican Policy Committee yesterday put out a paper criticizing Senate Democrats for their inaction on Social Security.

"Unfortunately, Senate Democrats seem intent on opposing reform in favor of the status quo. Therefore, by opposing all change, their 'bill' assures that the current system stays in place exactly as it is today," the paper read.

It went on to estimate the cost of doing nothing on Social Security, arguing that it would require new borrowing or tax increases of more than $5.8 trillion between 2018 and 2042, which likely would mean personal income-tax increases of roughly $232 billion a year.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, say Democrats are willing to sit down and talk with Mr. Bush about Social Security reform. But their main focus has been defeating Mr. Bush's private-accounts idea. And they haven't offered an alternative proposal.

Kristie Greco, spokeswoman for Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said many Democrats, including her boss, are waiting to see the specifics of Mr. Bush's plan before formally offering their own. She also noted that Republican leaders haven't congregated around a plan either.

"Both parties are just talking about ideas," she said. "I don't think anyone is -- in terms of party leadership -- offering a proposal at this point."

Mr. DeFazio is crafting a plan that would seek to financially shore up Social Security by lifting the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax, providing an exemption from the payroll tax for the first $4,000 of wages and investing a portion of the trust funds.

"We have an opportunity to keep the program intact, with minor changes," he said recently.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rockefeller said if Congress permanently extends just two-thirds of Mr. Bush's tax cuts and holds back on extending cuts for the wealthiest one-third, the Social Security problem would be dealt with.

"I think it's the way to solve it," Mr. Rockefeller said last week. He said he is talking with his fellow Democrats about such a proposal.

Mr. Moore, like most Democrats, opposes Mr. Bush's idea to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in private accounts. But he also said Democrats should come up with their own proposal to avoid looking like "obstructionists."

"I think it's probably better to come up with an alternative, rather than just say 'no,' " to the president, Mr. Moore said recently.

Mr. Moore's plan would ensure that Social Security trust funds cannot be used for other budget purposes, and Mr. Holt's plan would preserve all budget surpluses until Congress passes legislation that significantly extends the solvency of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida is the only Democrat who has co-sponsored legislation that includes private accounts.

Mr. Hoyer mentioned a few ideas that he is open to, including finding better ways to invest Social Security surpluses, so they make more money, and creating savings accounts outside of Social Security.