- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

President Bush put a host of options on the table when he spoke about Social Security in his State of the Union address, but he appears ready to leave nearly all of the early heavy lifting up to a skittish Congress.

The president said Wednesday that the continued solvency of Social Security might require limiting benefits for wealthy retirees, indexing benefits to prices rather than wages, increasing the retirement age and discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits. But he didn’t back any one solution — and isn’t expected to — before lawmakers draft their own plans.

Still Mr. Bush, who spent yesterday stumping for his Social Security ideas in Midwestern states with vulnerable Democratic senators, is ready to weigh in at any time with specific language for legislation when asked.

“The president is willing and wants to provide what level of detail he believes will lead to a legislative success,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

“If there was a critical mass on the Hill that said, ‘Mr. President, we honestly believe that more details at this point on this particular aspect of the program would be welcome and help to move us forward with progress,’ my sense is that the president would be very open to considering such a request.”

But with Democrats in both chambers lambasting the president’s principles while offering no plan of their own, most recently at a rally yesterday at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, the spokesman said Mr. Bush will put forward more specifics only when lawmakers are dealing “in good faith.”

He also said that the process is in its early stages and will await more input from Capitol Hill, echoing a senior administration official’s assessment earlier this week that the president does not want to be viewed as trying to “cram” his plan down the throats of lawmakers.

Republican leaders in both chambers are planning to collect ideas and concerns from their members to try to move toward eventual legislation.

“Right now, it’s in the phase of everyone’s got ideas, let’s bring them to the table and talk about them,” said a House Republican leadership aide.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he plans an intense educational period with his members, ensuring through numerous meetings, luncheons and discussions in the next weeks that Republicans “fully understand the current [Social Security] program and study the prospect of the program with no change.”

In a few weeks, the Senate will begin to debate specific legislative proposals in various public and private forums, Mr. Frist said, although nothing will happen on the Senate floor for a while. He said they will consider the suggestions that Mr. Bush made, as well as “many many more” ideas that will emerge.

Senate Democrats already are putting up a tough fight against proposals for private accounts.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said this week that he knows of no Democrats who will support the idea of integrating private accounts in Social Security.

Yesterday, 43 Democratic senators plus independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont signed a letter saying that Mr. Bush’s ideas are too costly and that they will only support a plan that minimizes the need for federal borrowing.

But Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said that it is still “the beginning of the legislative process” and that Republicans are starting to sit down with some Democrats to talk about options.

He said it might be a good idea to broaden the Social Security debate to include other retirement-related reforms like pension reform, which could bring Democrats to the table.

This strategy was first put forward by House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, who recently suggested going beyond Social Security reform to a larger discussion of retirement-related issues such as pensions, long-term care and alternative ways to fund Social Security.

Republicans say this strategy could attract more support and help get Mr. Bush’s ideas through Congress.

Mr. Thomas’ spokeswoman, Christin Tinsworth, said the next step in the House is a wide-ranging conversation about options.

“That’s a discussion we need to have before the legislative process,” she said.

Social Security reform will be discussed in two Ways and Means committee hearings next week — on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and on Wednesday with Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget. The House Budget Committee will also hold a hearing on Social Security on Wednesday.

In the Senate, the Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the budget on Tuesday. The Senate Budget Committee will meet Tuesday to hear from Government Accountability Office Comptroller General David Walker and later in the week to hear from Mr. Snow and Mr. Bolten. Social Security is expected to be a hot topic in these meetings as well.

Mr. Thomas ultimately will be the man to put the plan together, although an actual bill on the House floor is not imminent, because the House will be dealing over the next month with several issues left over from last session, including immigration, the energy bill and highway legislation, the House Republican leadership aide said.

“We know that once we move on to Social Security, it’s going to soak up all of our attention and energy,” the aide said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, will take the lead in crafting bipartisan Senate legislation that will garner the 60 votes needed to make it through the more moderate chamber.

His committee held its first hearing on Social Security on Wednesday, and he urged senators to seek “bipartisan consensus” and fight off “partisan roadblocks” that will emerge.

Mr. Bush’s State of the Union speech did give more details on the centerpiece of his proposal — letting Americans invest part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts.

Some Republicans say that is all that is needed for now.

“The president laid out the two most important things: the problem and what he brings new to the table,” said Mr. Santorum, referring to the private-accounts idea.

Mr. Santorum said the rest of the options for making Social Security financially viable in the future “have been on the table for a long, long time,” and it’s up to Congress to decide which to do.

But some would like more details. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is one Democrat who said he eventually might support Mr. Bush’s private account idea, but “I need to see the plan” before making that decision.

“I’m just anxious to see what the plan is,” he said.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said more details likely will come, but that Mr. Bush is taking the right steps so far.

“I think the president is right to say, ‘Here’s some recommendations, some ideas,’ and then we go to work on it,” Mr. Lott said.

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