- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

President Bush's proposal to overhaul Social Security is unlikely to come to a vote in the current Congress, according to Republicans who cite competing priorities as well as political concerns.
Instead, legislation to let workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes will probably hinge on next year's election. That would give Mr. Bush a chance to try and rally public opinion behind the idea as he bids for a second term.
The topic "is not on the short list" for this year, said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., Florida Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on Social Security. "If we don't do it this year, we may very well be looking past the 2004 election," he said.
In his State of the Union address in January, Mr. Bush gave the topic less emphasis than tax cuts and legislation to "reform and strengthen Medicare," including prescription drug coverage. He asked Congress to act this year on those priorities but set no timetable for steps to shore up Social Security.
One Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the White House has indicated to Congress that Mr. Bush wants to campaign with a Medicare plan in place, and tell voters it shows Republicans can be trusted to address the long-term financing of Social Security.
Senate Republicans omitted Social Security from their list of priorities recently when they issued their top 10 bills for the two-year Congress that convened in January.
Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said leaders have not made an "affirmative decision." But, he added, "It is not currently on the schedule because the first measure that has to be dealt with is Medicare prescription drugs."
In the House, a spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said the congressional agenda is "pretty crowded" with the possible war in Iraq, plans to stimulate the economy and updating Medicare.
"But our goal remains to strengthen Social Security for the long term," John Feehery said.
Other senior Republican aides say that privately, congressional leaders have shown little or no interest in voting on Social Security legislation in the near future, particularly given the battering the stock market has taken in recent years.
"No rational person thinks you have to tackle Medicare and Social Security in the same Congress," said one Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Both programs are politically sensitive, and in recent campaigns, Democrats have attacked Republican proposals as dangerous to the tens of millions of people enrolled in them.
At the same time, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress recently to move as quickly as possible to fix a system that will be paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes beginning in 2017.
"Early initiatives to address the economic effects of baby boom retirements could smooth the transition to a new balance between workers and retirees. If we delay, the adjustments could be abrupt and painful," he told a Senate committee.
The Social Security trustees release their annual report tomorrow on the state of the program's funding, and Mr. Bush is expected to use the occasion to underscore his proposals.

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