- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

A pre-emptive move by Republicans to shield themselves from Democratic attacks that the Republican Party is out to slash Social Security retirement benefits is turning into the hot, new battleground in Congress.
The debate over President Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security has largely been off the political radar screen over the past year, with the exception of a brief skirmish over a presidential commission report in December that showed how Mr. Bush's reform plan could be implemented.
But a new initiative by Republican leaders to give retirees an iron-clad guarantee that their benefits are safe has triggered a burst of Democratic threats to turn the bill into a series of test votes on Mr. Bush's proposal to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in blue chip stock and bond mutual funds.
House Republican leaders, led by Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, say they plan to pass a bill next month that would require the Treasury Department to give each retiree a government certificate that promises their benefits will never be reduced.
Republican campaign officials say the bill, which is likely to get unanimous Republican support, would give their members "protective political cover" from the Democrats' biggest guns in this year's elections. "If you are attacked by your opponent who says you want to cut Social Security, all you have to do is hold up this bill and say you voted to guarantee that no one's benefits will be cut," said a House Republican official.
The administration and Republican leaders wanted to put off any legislative activity on Social Security reform until 2003, preferring to let the issue get a thorough public airing during this year's election campaign. But it now seems the House bill could lead to some politically significant votes on the issue much earlier than anyone expected.
In a memo to Republican lawmakers earlier last week, Mr. Armey said the guarantee bill was needed to "assure Social Security recipients that their retirement security will be protected by a Republican Congress while we begin making the case, forcefully and without fear or apology for wide-ranging reform of the system."
But immediately after stories began circulating last week about the Republican Party's plan, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle shot off a letter to their Republican counterparts stating they had no intention of playing along.
If the House passes such legislation, "it will be the subject of thorough debate in the Senate, including votes on the specific proposals contained in the report of the administration's Social Security Commission," the two Democratic leaders said.
The issue in the upcoming debate will not be the Republican Party's guarantee, but "the dangers of Social Security privatization and its attendant shift of risk to vulnerable beneficiaries" that was heightened by Enron's bankruptcy and the disappearance of the Social Security surpluses, they said.
Democrats have managed to play upon voters' fears about Social Security for years, often with significant success. They used the issue effectively in 1982 and 1986 to win new seats in Congress.
But in the 2000 election, Mr. Bush was the first presidential nominee to propose partially privatizing the politically popular New Deal-era program that will begin running revenue shortfalls in 10 years unless changes are made in the system. Al Gore, his Democratic opponent, attacked Mr. Bush's proposal but made little headway with the issue.
This year things may be different, Republican campaign officials say. With Mr. Bush running high in the polls, the economy showing signs of a recovery, and with the war on terrorism and homeland defense eclipsing most other issues, the Democrats are expected "to play the Social Security fear card for all its worth," according to one Republican official.
The Social Security guarantee idea was the brainchild of economist Bruce Bartlett, a columnist for The Washington Times. Three years ago he wrote a column in which he proposed that the Republicans "pass a law saying that under no circumstances will any changes in the Social Security system affect the benefits of any current retiree."
"The benefit of this approach is that it removes the main barrier to reform, which is the fear current benefits will be cut," he said.

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