Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said yesterday he thinks he has consensus among the panel Republicans on how to make the Social Security system solvent, but they haven’t yet discussed the personal accounts pushed by President Bush.

Mr. Grassley’s tack has been the opposite of House Republican leaders, who last week began focusing their colleagues on a proposal that only includes personal accounts and does not address solvency.

In the Senate, where personal accounts face a tougher sell, Mr. Grassley has been trying to first reach agreement on the solvency aspect.

“I think I got that now,” the Iowa Republican said yesterday, describing a “rough consensus” among 10 of the 11 Finance Committee Republicans.

Though he wouldn’t give details, he said the proposal would involve indexing Social Security benefits, changing the retirement age and some sort of revenue change.

Once Mr. Grassley gets the solvency agreement nailed down, he will try to get the group to come to some consensus on personal accounts as well. But he noted he had problems last week even getting members to show up at a meeting to discuss the personal accounts.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file House Republicans will be briefed this morning on a proposal that would use the Social Security surplus to create voluntary personal accounts for workers 55 and younger. The idea is being pushed by key members of the House Ways and Means Committee as well as some leaders, such as House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

“I think it has legs,” said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican and Ways and Means Committee member who is pushing the idea.

The Ways and Means panel — led by Rep. Bill Thomas of California — is crafting a broad retirement proposal that includes Social Security reform. The bill likely will include the new accounts and also could include solvency provisions, House Republicans say.

Though the Senate is far from agreement on personal accounts, Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, was glad Mr. Grassley seems to be making some progress in his chamber.

“Anything they can get passed out of the Senate we should consider a major victory,” Mr. Kingston said, adding that if the Senate can pass any sort of Social Security bill — even without personal accounts — the House would “meet them in conference committee with personal accounts.”

Though the House bill is not finalized, Republican leaders are trying to rally their members around the surplus-for-accounts idea, which represents a new way to sell personal accounts to the public.

“It is absolutely a new idea, and the reason the personal accounts work is that they belong to the individual,” Mr. Blunt said.

Democrats so far have been staunchly against the proposal and don’t seem worried about the public buying the Republicans’ new strategy.

“They’re going to see if by framing it that way, personal accounts may be more popular, but I don’t think they will be,” said one House Democratic aide. “Bring it on; we’re not afraid.”

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