- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Senate Republicans, after months trying to lay the groundwork for Social Security reform legislation, are reaching the point of desperation and still can’t agree on what to put in a bill and whether to move now or wait for Democratic support.

After six months of President Bush’s campaigning and backroom discussions on Capitol Hill, Republicans are no closer to winning any Democrat cooperation on Social Security.

Democrats refuse to negotiate until Mr. Bush takes his private-accounts idea off the table, and without some Democratic support, no bill can pass the Senate.

“We’re reaching the point where we’re going to have to make some progress here or this issue is going to fade,” Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said this week at a rally that aimed yet again at boosting bipartisan talks.

The situation has left Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Senate Republicans to craft a bill among themselves.

“That’s sort of what we are left with,” Mr. Santorum said, calling the scenario “wholly unsatisfactory.”

Meanwhile, on the House side, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, appeared to back off a November pledge to conservative activists to send a Social Security bill to the president during this congressional session.

Yesterday, Mr. DeLay said he’s “looking forward” to the House passing such a bill, but when asked whether he is confident that will happen this session, he hedged.

“This is not an issue that you can answer that kind of question,” he said, calling it a “day-by-day” process.

Mr. Bush yesterday acknowledged the reluctance of lawmakers to embrace his ideas, telling the Fox News Channel that “Social Security is a difficult issue for members of Congress, because they think, well, it may be a tough vote.”

He suggested that even some Republicans are grousing about him.

“Some in Washington say, ‘I wish he hadn’t brought it up,’” he said. “‘How come he’s making us do this?’”

But he added: “I think it will cost our party if we don’t deal with Social Security. I think the American people expect people to solve problems.”

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have many ideas about what their bill should include. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Trent Lott of Mississippi both want Mr. Grassley to put out a bill soon and said he could do so as early as this week.

Mr. Kyl said some Republicans like himself may not support all elements of such a draft bill but that it’s “the right next step” to collect the Republican ideas, find as much common ground as possible, put something together and run it up the flagpole. If it flops, they can go back and try another approach, he said.

“What’s the alternative?” Mr. Kyl asked. “There’s not much to gain by waiting.”

Mr. Lott agreed. “I think it is reaching a crunch time,” he said, adding that once Mr. Grassley puts something forward “at least we’ll see where we are.”

“I’m not afraid to pull the trigger,” Mr. Lott said.

But Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican and fellow Finance Committee member, said that strategy is foolish, especially if the bill contains elements that Democrats have already flatly rejected.

“The president has already done that and colleagues have already done that, and people aren’t saluting the flag right now,” he said.

“I don’t understand how acting and failing advances the cause of reform. We have to have Democratic engagement,” Mr. Smith said, predicting that will come a few years from now, when the Social Security system starts using up some of the general funds.

Between Republicans who want to move forward now and those who want to wait for Democrats is Mr. Grassley, who says he will put out a draft bill only when all his panel’s Republicans agree.

Mr. Grassley and his Republicans are leaving the discussion on private accounts for later, however, and are first trying to reach agreement on fixing the system’s future financial problems. Such measures could include raising the retirement age or slowing benefit growth.

But he said that when the discussions are over, his bill would include private accounts, structured by diverting part of the payroll tax — a setup often called “carve-outs.”

Mr. Grassley acknowledged yesterday that Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, opposes such a move, adding that the provision could be changed or killed as the bill progresses. But he said of his initial proposal: “I’m going to propose carve-outs.”

• Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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