- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sen. Rick Santorum, in an attempt to revive the Social Security debate in the Senate, is pushing a new strategy to combat Democratic criticism and calm seniors’ fears by legally guaranteeing that those born before 1950 will receive their promised benefits.

The chairman of the Senate Republican Conference soon will introduce legislation guaranteeing that people 55 and older will receive their monthly Social Security benefit check and an annual cost-of-living adjustment.

“It’s basically a bill that attempts to take a step towards resolving uncertainty,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “No more scaring seniors. It’s in the law.”

President Bush has promised that his Social Security proposal wouldn’t affect people 55 and older, and congressional Republicans have followed suit. But Democrats and outside groups such as the AARP have proven to be powerful adversaries.

Republicans haven’t been able to win that public relations battle, so Mr. Santorum’s bill aims to assure seniors that their benefits won’t be cut.

Mr. Santorum said his bill will allow the debate to move forward. “I think we clear a political hurdle,” he said.

His idea is to combine it with a bill from Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, that would create voluntary Social Security private accounts for individuals using the system’s current surplus.

Mr. DeMint said the bills are “two simple first steps” and that combining them is good strategy.

The bills are narrower than Mr. Bush’s proposal, which would allow workers to divert 4 percent of a person’s Social Security payroll tax into an individual account.

Critics of Republican efforts said Mr. Santorum’s new bill wouldn’t stop future Congresses from simply changing the law, so it doesn’t really protect anything. And they said seniors have rejected Republicans’ private-accounts idea largely because they feel it will be bad for their children and grandchildren.

“Tinkering around the edges isn’t going to change people’s minds,” said David Certner, director of federal affairs at AARP.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the new bill doesn’t change the fact that private accounts would weaken the system and eventually cause deep benefit cuts, massive debt increases, or both.

“The Republicans keep trying new gimmicks to save their flawed privatization scheme, but the American people will not be fooled,” he said.

Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, will add yet another bill to the mix today when he introduces a Social Security lockbox measure.

One glitch for Mr. Santorum’s bill could be the White House — a Santorum aide said they were told the White House would oppose it.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, is scheduled to attend Mr. Santorum’s Social Security task force meeting this week. Mr. Thomas is crafting a broad retirement-security package that is likely to include a proposal similar to Mr. DeMint’s accounts bill.

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