- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

President Bush intends to make partially privatizing the Social Security system a key part of his campaign next year, administration officials say.

White House political and domestic-policy advisers said that with the economy in recovery and the financial markets making a comeback, the time is politically ripe for Mr. Bush to raise the level of discussion about his proposal to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds.

Some Bush advisers and key congressional supporters said the president wants to make one of the last remaining planks in his 2000 campaign agenda a key part of his re-election efforts. White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten said last month that he would “not be at all surprised were [the president] to decide that [Social Security reform] was an important issue to take to the people.”

Another White House official said Tuesday that he expected the issue would be given “increased attention” in the 2004 campaign.

That is the message the White House has been sending to its supporters on Capitol Hill and congressional allies in preparation for the coming elections. “There is a movement under way to start talking about Social Security,” said a Senate Republican policy adviser.

Heading up that movement in Congress is Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who introduced a bill Tuesday that is modeled after a reform proposal made by the bipartisan Social Security commission Mr. Bush appointed in 2001. Mr. Graham said he discussed the issue with Mr. Bush last week and was encouraged to move ahead with the issue.

“He says this is a winning issue — people will embrace this idea if we’re bold enough to lead on it,” Mr. Graham said. “He’s the key to this, because to get the public behind something new, you’re going to need presidential support.”

Several other Social Security actions also were in the planning stages for the coming year.

A series of town meeting forums to build public support to change the system are planned for next year in several key states by the Social Security Administration, the 35-million-member AARP and the National Association of Manufacturers.

“The goal is to educate the public on the problems and challenges Social Security faces and in the near term to reassure people that Social Security is not going broke tomorrow, but the sooner we act, the better,” said Derrick Max, director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security that was created by the manufacturers’ association to lobby for Social Security reform.

The Graham bill is the only Social Security reform introduced in the Senate. Another reform bill has been introduced in the House by Reps. Charlie W. Stenholm, Texas Democrat, and Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Graham’s plan would allow workers under the age of 55 to invest 4 percent of their payroll taxes in their own individual retirement accounts — mutual growth funds that they would own and could leave to their heirs.

When Mr. Bush first proposed his plan in 2000, it drew support from younger workers and gained even further support during the 2002 midterm elections, despite fierce opposition from Democrats.

“Our research showed that it didn’t help the Democrats. Supporters of reforms tended to win. So we’re encouraged and the president has seen the evidence of that,” Mr. Max said.

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