- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

Congressional Democratic leaders yesterday called on their Republican counterparts to hold an "honest" debate on Social Security reform as both parties try to frame the election-year issue.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri told the Republicans in a letter that "the American people want and deserve a national dialogue about any plans to privatize Social Security."
"Because of this issue's great significance to the nation, any debate about its future must be given full floor consideration in both the House and Senate," they wrote to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
They said the Democrat-led Senate will hold "votes on the specific proposals" of the Bush administration's plans to partially privatize Social Security if House Republicans approve, as planned, a largely symbolic measure aimed at reassuring the public about retirement benefits.
Congressional Republicans and the White House want to put off consideration of the administration's plans for partial privitazation until after the midterm elections.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, informed colleagues in a recent memo that the House will vote next month on a proposal to guarantee Social Security benefits to all workers when they retire.
Republicans acknowledge that the bill, to be considered under the "suspended" rules calendar that is usually reserved for low-profile measures, is designed to take away the issue of retirement security from Democrats in the campaign.
But the letter from Mr. Daschle and Mr. Gephardt indicates that Democrats intend to redouble their efforts to make an election issue out of Social Security and retirement plans in general. Their missive also refers to the retirement savings lost in the collapse of Enron Corp., an episode that Democrats have tried to blame on the Bush administration.
"The dangers of Social Security privatization, and its attendant shift of risk to vulnerable beneficiaries, have been tragically illustrated in recent months by the fate of Enron employees who lost their life savings," the Democrats said. "Concerns about the integrity of the Social Security system were heightened earlier this month when the Administration's budget proposed to weaken the system by diverting $1.5 trillion of Social Security surpluses away from the program just as baby boomers begin to retire."
Administration officials say President Bush wants private investment accounts to ensure benefits, not a symbolic guarantee from Congress.
Mr. Armey's memo last week said the bill was needed to block Democratic attacks while Republicans "begin making the case forcefully and without fear or apology for wide-ranging reform of the system."
The Democrats countered, "Cursory consideration on the House suspension calendar is clearly insufficient for a matter of such fundamental importance as retirement security."


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