Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with the White House’s encouragement, are working on compromise legislation and seeking early test votes to enact President Bush’s plan for private Social Security investment accounts.
White House officials have been working behind the scenes with various lawmakers and their staffs to advance Mr. Bush’s proposal that would allow workers to invest a part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds to potentially realize higher long-term retirement benefits.
“Meetings have been held to discuss legislative strategies to move this forward, and the White House is very much involved,” said a congressional aide who has sat in on some of the discussions. “They are helping to push things along.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is one of several Republicans working on a bill to create such accounts. He intends to offer it as an amendment to legislation this year.
“We need to show some movement on this and see how much support it has,” Mr. Graham said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Several Democrats are also promoting bipartisan plans, including Reps. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas and Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana. Last month, Mr. Breaux held hearings on proposals made by a presidential reform commission that Mr. Bush authorized to come up with ways to implement his plan. The General Accounting Office testified that Social Security personal accounts could be created that would increase benefits for younger workers, protect the benefits of those who are nearing retirement and keep the system financially solvent.
“It could happen this Congress if the president gets four-square behind it. I’d do it tomorrow. I’d vote for it. We’ve got to do something. Otherwise we’re just hamstringing future generations,” Mr. Breaux said at the time.
Mr. Bush surprised many supporters when he urged Congress in his State of the Union address last month to begin work on a plan to overhaul the system, which faces bankruptcy when tens of millions of baby boomers enter the system in coming years.
“As we continue to work together to keep Social Security sound and reliable, we must offer younger workers a chance to invest in retirement accounts that they will control and they will own,” Mr. Bush said.
Before the address, the president and others in his administration had little to say about Social Security reform. Many of his supporters feared he would shelve the idea until after 2004, if he wins re-election.
But the president’s one-sentence call for action was enough to reassure retirement-account supporters that Mr. Bush still backs the idea of reform and wanted to see some movement on it in Congress this year, if only preliminary hearings and debate.
“Bush continues to provide vital leadership on this issue. Congress should follow his lead and give workers greater control over their Social Security taxes,” said Michael Tanner, Social Security analyst at the Cato Institute, which has been one of Mr. Bush’s biggest boosters on the issue.
Democrats had hoped to make his proposal a winning issue for their candidates in last year’s elections. The Democratic National Committee and their candidates spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads denouncing the idea and saying it would reduce benefits for retirees. But their campaign offensive appeared to have little effect on voters.
Postelection polls showed that Republicans not only won a slightly larger percentage of the elderly, but that Social Security investment accounts emerged more popular than ever with younger workers.
The day after Mr. Bush called on Congress to act, Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, held a news conference attended by a bipartisan group of reformers who support his initiative, including Mr. Stenholm and Mr. Graham; Republican Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and Reps. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican and Allen Boyd, Florida Democrat.
“There are a lot discussions going on about which plans can attract the broadest support,” said Andrew Biggs, a former analyst on Mr. Bush’s commission.
“The biggest hurdle now is how do you get plans that satisfy both ends of the spectrum. That’s what has to be done now to break through this gap between the ideologues in Cato and the more moderate groups like the Concord Coalition,” Mr. Biggs said.