- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

President Bush yesterday took his Social Security public relations tour to New Hampshire, into the heart of a district represented by a Republican who opposes the central aspect of his reforms.

New Hampshire’s two Republican senators, Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, are strong supporters of the president’s plan, and Mr. Bush brought them along on Air Force One to help him sell his idea of incorporating private accounts for younger workers into Social Security.

“There’s going to be a lot of discussion about how to fund these accounts,” Mr. Bush said. “I look forward to working with Congress. I’m interested. I’m open-minded.”

Absent, however, was Rep. Jeb Bradley, who during his 2002 campaign maintained that “privatization is not the answer” to reforming Social Security.

Mr. Bradley said yesterday that he did not attend the president’s trip to his home district ” a common perk for Republicans in the Bush presidency ” because of floor votes in Washington. He would not have supported much of what Mr. Bush had to say anyway.

“In 2002 I opposed privatization, and I remain opposed to privatization,” he said in an interview. “As I have said on numerous occasions, we must recognize the long-term problems facing the Social Security system, and through bipartisan discussion, determine the best ways to strengthen the system for future retirees.”

Mr. Bradley is among the 29 Republican congressmen House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer claims oppose Mr. Bush’s most cherished domestic reform.

“The president is running into a fierce head wind on Social Security privatization within his own party because he’s asking Republicans to stick their necks out on a proposal that most experts agree only make the problem worse,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards said.

Yesterday’s campaign-style event marked the eighth state Mr. Bush has visited to plug his Social Security reforms since his inauguration. All the other stops were in states where the White House thinks it can pressure Democrats who are up for re-election next year. New Hampshire was the first aimed squarely at a Republican.

In a sign that Mr. Bush realizes he may have to compromise with Congress to get his way, the president told a New Hampshire newspaper yesterday that he is willing to consider raising the cap on the income subject to Social Security taxes.

Workers currently have 12 percent of their income withheld by the federal government to support Social Security up to the first $90,000 they earn. Democrats and some influential Republicans have insisted that an increase in the income subject to that tax be raised significantly as a condition to private accounts.

“The one thing I’m not open-minded about is raising the payroll tax rate, and all the other issues are on the table and that’s important for people to know,” Mr. Bush was quoted as saying in the Birmingham News.

The White House has previously declined to answer questions regarding an increase in the cap, but spokesman Trent Duffy yesterday said Mr. Bush is open to discussing it. “That doesn’t mean he’s embraced it,” Mr. Duffy said.

According to the system’s trustees, it will begin running a deficit in 2018, need about $200 billion in additional spending a year to meet benefit promises in 2027, and become insolvent in 2042 ” at which time massive tax increases or benefit cuts will be necessary each year to keep it afloat.

“Those are the facts,” the president said. “Now, 13 years isn’t very far down the road. It may seem like a lot for some in the United States Congress who have got two-year terms. But it’s not a lot if you’re a grandfather who’s worried about whether or not your grandchild is going to have a retirement system that works.”

Mr. Bush’s plan would not change the system for anyone born before 1950, but everyone else could gradually begin to take part of their Social Security withholding and put it into safe, strictly regulated private accounts.

Phasing in the program would cost between $650 billion and $2 trillion over the next 10 years, but the Bush administration says that is cheaper than waiting for the current $10 trillion in Social Security liabilities to eventually come due.

Mr. Bush said that a 20-year-old worker currently making $35,000 a year would have a $250,000 nest egg that could be drawn down on slowly to fund retirement or passed on to heirs upon death.

“I’ve talked to widows who would like to see at least something left over for all the hard work their husband has done,” he said.

The president picked a fierce political battle to kick off his second term, and will have to battle a determined Democratic Party and some of the country’s most powerful interest groups to get his way.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee where any Social Security reform bill will be born, admitted that getting Republicans to join Mr. Bush’s side will be difficult.

“Every member would like to see Social Security go away, but it isn’t going to go away because the president won’t let it go away,” Mr. Grassley told reporters Tuesday.

AARP, with 35 million members over the age of 50, is staunchly opposed to Mr. Bush’s plan and is among the most generous contributors to congressional campaigns. The organization rejects Mr. Bush’s contention that Social Security is in “crisis,” and needs only “small fixes” to shore it up.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee yesterday that he supports private accounts because “it’s a good thing to do over the longer run,” but “you have to do it in a cautious, gradual way.”

Sen. Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Democrat who is leading the opposition to the president’s plan, read Mr. Greenspan’s comments as caution “against fiscally reckless privatization efforts, something embodied in the president’s yet unspecified Social Security proposal.”

“While advocates of Social Security privatization may trumpet [Mr. Greenspan’s] comments as support for the president’s proposal, I suggest they read the fine print,” he said.

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