- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat, broke with his party leadership yesterday and introduced a plan to fix Social Security by raising taxes, saying it’s time more Democrats join the dialogue by introducing plans of their own.

“I hope mine is the first of several Democratic plans that are offered,” Mr. Wexler said. “I believe it’s time Democrats offer an alternative to the president.”

Republicans have urged Democrats repeatedly to offer plans of their own, instead of just criticizing President Bush’s ideas, so they were encouraged by Mr. Wexler’s move. But it didn’t make Democratic leaders happy.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, largely has been successful in holding her rank and file unified around the premise that Democrats won’t negotiate on Social Security or offer a plan until Mr. Bush takes his private-accounts idea off the table.

Although a few Democrats offered Social Security “lockbox” proposals early in the year, Mr. Wexler is the first from his party to be lead sponsor of a plan since the debate on the program hit a high pitch in recent months.

Mr. Wexler said he talked to Mrs. Pelosi about his plan, and that “it’s certainly fair to say Mrs. Pelosi did not encourage me to do this.”

“This is not the Democratic plan,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. “When the Democratic caucus is ready to put their plan forth, they will.”

She said making his own proposal “was Mr. Wexler’s choice,” but that Democrats remain strongly united in opposition to private-accounts plans.

Mr. Wexler’s plan would increase taxes to take care of Social Security’s projected shortfall. The proposal would subject income above the $90,000 cap to a 6 percent tax — 3 percent paid by the worker, 3 percent paid by the employer. Income less than $90,000 already is taxed at twice that rate.

It also would reinstate budget rules requiring that any new entitlement spending or tax cuts be offset with further tax increases or spending cuts.

Mr. Wexler, whose district has the largest number of Social Security beneficiaries of any Democrat in the nation, said his plan shows that “you can fix the Social Security shortfall without cutting benefits, without raising the retirement age, without borrowing more money and without using privatization accounts.”

He said he is “very much a part of the unified Democratic effort” against Mr. Bush’s ideas to divert a portion of the payroll tax into private retirement accounts for individuals and to raise future benefits for middle- and upper-class workers more slowly.

Mr. Wexler said the Democratic Party has convinced the American people that Mr. Bush’s ideas are flawed but now must show what it would do.

Rep. Dennis Moore, Kansas Democrat, agreed yesterday that his party members “need to start talking” specifics.

Mr. Moore, who represents a district that voted for Mr. Bush last year, offered a “lockbox” proposal in February that would ensure that Social Security trust fund dollars are saved for the program and not used on other government expenses, as now happens.

“I’d like to see our party come up with an offer, something to get the dialogue started,” said Mr. Moore, who has conferred extensively on the issue with a group of House Democrats, including one party leader. Another Democrat, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, is the only party member to have publicly backed any private-accounts plan.

Mr. Wexler said he also has spoken privately with several of his Democratic colleagues about moving forward with plans and that “there’s a lot more support for this kind of action than people might believe.”

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, is considering introducing a plan that would lift the cap on income subject to the payroll tax while exempting the first $4,000.

Republicans welcomed Mr. Wexler’s bill, though most of them strongly oppose raising taxes. They said it shows Democratic leaders are starting to feel pressure to act.

“Congressman Wexler’s actions today represent the first of what will probably be many defections by rank-and-file Democrats who shun their leadership’s continued obstruction,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

The Democratic National Committee, however, says it’s the Republicans who are in a bind, because Mr. Bush has proposed a plan that has flopped with the American people. The DNC yesterday cited a new Time magazine poll that found that 59 percent of Americans disapprove of his proposals for Social Security.

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