- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

President Bush is poised to take the lead on Social Security reform, convening a public meeting today on his plan to incorporate private accounts in the government-run retirement system.

The event today will represent the beginning of Mr. Bush’s “full-court press” to sell the country, then Congress, on the administration’s still-evolving plan to reform Social Security by allowing younger workers to invest a small percentage of their contributions into mutual funds and bonds.

“The president will continue to highlight the problem facing Social Security and the need to act to address it now, before it gets worse, because over time it only gets worse,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

A member of Mr. Bush’s unofficial advisory board on Social Security reform said he thinks numerous speeches and meetings on the issue can build political momentum.

“They are planning to do it in a very big way,” Michael Tanner said. “This is going to look a lot like the campaign for the tax cuts he got passed. You’re going to have the president in key states and districts out there talking.”

A source among the advisers said the White House will not release a detailed plan until February or March and that it likely will not be a complete bill for Congress to consider.

The White House will make clear, however, that including the option for younger workers — perhaps at age 50 or under — to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts is not negotiable.

The White House fears that too much congressional control over the bill will result in something similar to the new prescription drug program in Medicare, a source said. Though Mr. Bush touted the new entitlement on the campaign trail last year, many conservatives bemoaned its bloated price tag — estimated at $440 billion in the next 10 years, and rising.

“Medicare was handled much more hands-off, and the net result was something that was not exactly what people planned on having going into that debate,” a source said.

The Bush administration is angry about the leak of an internal memo last week that suggested Mr. Bush’s plan inevitably would result in cuts to benefits for future retirees. The memo suggested shifting the benefits formula to reflect only the cost of living and the growth of wages.

The liberal think tank Campaign for America’s Future is holding an event today with Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, to highlight the “fact that the president’s Social Security privatization proposal calls for benefit cuts for all Americans.”

The White House also is not pleased that three prominent former Republican congressmen — Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Jack Kemp — have joined those who have criticized internal White House discussions on Social Security reform.

“The internal backbiting by some Republicans has been a disappointment,” said a source working on the White House plan. “… That is a distraction that is not needed at a time when everyone needs to be on the same page.”

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