Wednesday, April 20, 2005

President Bush has entered the transition phase of his Social Security sales job, moving from talking about the problem to suggesting solutions. But as he inches out on that precarious branch with specific ideas of reform, he is finding few friends willing to join him.

Mr. Bush gave a speech in South Carolina on Monday in which he suggested that raising the retirement age and recalculating the way Social Security benefits are determined are “good ideas” and should be discussed with lawmakers in Washington.

A senior House Democratic aide said the caucus does not trust that the president is sincere when he says he wants to fix the program, which analysts say will begin to run a deficit in 2017 and become insolvent in 2037.

“He’s looking to draw Democrats out so he can hammer them, then get back to pushing private accounts,” the aide said. “He’s trying to get us to talk about things that aren’t popular. We’re not going to do it.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said yesterday that Democrats refuse to negotiate with Mr. Bush until he abandons his idea to invest a portion of a worker’s Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts.

“We have said from the very beginning, once he takes privatization off the table, we will talk about the long-term financial problems of Social Security,” said Mr. Reid, who also insists that Social Security “is not in crisis.”

“He has to understand that he is not all-knowing,” he said. “If he wants to work on this program … let him send a plan up here, and let him take privatization off the table. We’re happy to work with him.”

A national poll by Harvard University released this week found that 70 percent of college students disagree with Mr. Reid and are convinced that Social Security will not be able to provide for their retirement. They support Mr. Bush’s private-accounts proposal.

Charlie Jarvis, chairman and chief executive of USA Next — a self-styled conservative foil to the AARP — cited that poll yesterday as proof that Democrats are bent on “committing political suicide.”

“I am utterly mystified by Democrats continuing their monumental political mistake on Social Security,” Mr. Jarvis said.

However, congressional Republican sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president’s party isn’t keen about the ideas Mr. Bush has floated. Republicans are reluctant to vote for an increase in retirement age or a major adjustment to the benefit formula, which undoubtedly would offset some of the benefit increases Congress has passed in the past 20 years.

Michael Tanner, director for the Project on Social Security Choice for the libertarian Cato Institute — which has helped the White House craft its reform plans and political strategy — said the president is smart to start talking about solutions.

“He’s going to have to talk about this sooner or later,” Mr. Tanner said. “You can’t pass a concept. You have to pass a bill.”

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