- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

Key Republicans, aiming to refocus the Social Security debate and unite their party, will introduce a new bill this week to create personal retirement accounts by using surplus Social Security funds the government currently spends on other programs.

“No one seems to be agreeing on how to fix Social Security in the long run, but they do agree that we should stop spending the Social Security surplus” on other programs, said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who plans to introduce the bill early this week with Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“This bill is just designed to save the surplus. … I think it’s a way to move the debate forward,” Mr. DeMint said.

The idea has generated serious interest in the House as well, where it’s being shopped to members and considered by the Ways and Means Committee — the panel working to write a comprehensive retirement package, including Social Security reform.

House Republican leaders were cautiously optimistic about the proposal.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, while not endorsing it, said it is “a good idea,” that’s being considered by Ways and Means and several House Republicans. Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican, said “it could” become something that unites members, but that “depends on how it’s handled.”

Lawrence A. Hunter, vice president and chief economist at the Free Enterprise Fund, said House Republican leaders are indeed looking to move this bill. “I’m optimistic that this could be the beginning of breaking the logjam on Social Security,” he said.

Until roughly 2017, Social Security will annually take in more money than it spends on benefits, thus running annual surpluses. Those surpluses are collected in the trust fund and owed to Social Security, though the government actually spends the money on other parts of the federal budget.

The bill proposed by Mr. DeMint would take the annual surpluses and create voluntary personal retirement accounts for individuals to invest in Treasury bonds only.

President Bush’s idea, by contrast, would have financed the accounts by directly diverting a portion of each worker’s Social Security payroll tax.

The bill ignores for now the larger goal Mr. Bush pushed, of making Social Security permanently solvent.

The White House did not immediately return a call late Friday, but spokesman Trent Duffy was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying the idea “is worth taking a look at.”

“It does have a healthy personal account feature. But the president also wants to address the underlying solvency problem,” Mr. Duffy said.

A Senate Republican leadership aide said Republicans “are trying to move the process forward” with the DeMint bill, but stressed it isn’t an alternative to a comprehensive, bipartisan solution.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file House Republicans seemed supportive of the new tack. “I sort of like the idea, to move the ball along,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican.

Rep. Zach Wamp, Tennessee Republican, hadn’t heard of the proposal, but said “that sounds to me like [an idea] that might advance the cause that right now is lacking.”

Democrats didn’t seem enticed. Rep. David Wu of Oregon called it “a new gimmick.” He hadn’t heard of the new idea, but said it deserves “a quick death” because Social Security surplus money “is there for a purpose, and that is to pay guaranteed benefits.”

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