- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Democrats yesterday said their No. 1 goal is to stop President Bush from succeeding with his proposal to incorporate private savings accounts into Social Security and that they will discuss their own ideas for revamping the federal retirement system later.

But Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, said his party’s key focus is to “prevent the Bush administration from wrecking” Social Security with Mr. Bush’s proposal.

“That’s our first priority, and we’re determined,” said Mr. Levin, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Bush yesterday appealed to workers in their 20s “to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt,” when they reach retirement age, and urged Congress to embrace his idea of reforming the entitlement created in 1935 by incorporating private savings accounts.

The president acknowledged that reforming the system is a steep political challenge, as even members of his own party are questioning the wisdom of doing so.

“I know this is an issue that some would rather not be talking about,” he said. “I think some think it’s got too much political danger attached to it.”

The actuaries of Social Security estimate that it will begin to run a deficit in 2018 and become insolvent in 2042. While younger workers slowly can begin to make other investment plans since the government can’t pay for its promises, Mr. Bush said, current retirees would see no change in their benefits.

“Now, I’ve talked about this, and I want the people to clearly understand: If you’re a senior receiving your Social Security check, nothing is going to change,” Mr. Bush said. “Those days of politicizing Social Security, I hope, are in the past. There is plenty of money in the system today to take care of those who have retired or near retirement.”

Mr. Levin and other Democratic grass-roots leaders — in a press conference after Mr. Bush’s speech — said the president is painting a much bleaker picture of the situation than is truly the case, and trying to “scare our nation” into accepting the private accounts. Democrats argued that his plan would cut benefits, cost $2 trillion and jeopardize seniors’ government-guaranteed Social Security system as we know it.

“As we see it, Social Security faces a challenge, not a crisis,” Mr. Levin said, noting the system has a surplus until 2018 and is functional for the next 40 years to 50 years.

Some changes must be made to address these long-term problems, the Democrats acknowledged, but the answer is not, “shredding the safety net and replacing it with Wall Street accounts,” said Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and a former Democratic congresswoman from Connecticut.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, said Republicans are “deeply divided” about how to implement Mr. Bush’s ideas and whether to impose benefits cuts. He said there aren’t enough votes in Congress to pass the Bush proposal.

When asked repeatedly by reporters for their own proposals for the system, the Democrats said that discussion will come later, after the “privatization” of Social Security is soundly defeated.

But Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said Democrats are wrong in their lack of urgency, since, starting in 2018, Social Security will begin spending more money than it will take in. He said “personal savings accounts are a way to keep the government from spending” the money people save — which is the main reason Social Security is facing this crisis.

And he said Republicans are “where we need to be” — agreeing the reform must be done, and now debating implementation of the plan.

Mr. DeMint praised Mr. Bush for “taking the initiative” in pushing the idea.

“I just hope the Congress will show the same leadership and courage in moving these issues forward,” he said.



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