- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Opponents of President Bush’s Social Security personal accounts plan were jolted into action last week when the proposal showed up in Mr. Bush’s newest budget request.

Mr. Bush’s proposal to allow younger workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll tax into personal investment accounts fizzled last year because of a lack of support in Congress.

He didn’t push for it in his State of the Union address last month, instead calling for a bipartisan commission to study how best to reform the system — a move that “relieved” Democratic opponents of the plan such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

But that relief quickly dissipated Monday, opponents said, when they discovered Mr. Bush’s 2007 budget proposal mentioned the plan — suggesting the accounts start in 2010 at a 10-year cost of $712 billion.

“I did not expect that,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, who criticized the plan last week while talking to reporters. “We wanted to talk today to make sure that everybody in the country understands that this is what drives the president of the United States: privatization of Social Security.”

But Republicans said Congress won’t act on the proposal during this already highly charged election year.

“It’s not a surprise that he would propose it once again because he’s made it a priority for his administration. At the same time, it would be difficult for us to tackle this in a partisan election atmosphere,” a House Republican leadership aide said.

Republican Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both praised Mr. Bush for not giving up, but agreed that Congress won’t act this year.

“No, but a bipartisan commission may help us” get a bill moving, said Mr. Graham, one of several lawmakers who pushed for the legislation last year. “I applaud the president for keeping the topic alive.”

Americans United to Protect Social Security — the group that had been leading the opposition to the plan — recently shortened its name to Americans United and had started to focus on other issues.

“Not once did we discuss that we’d have to fight the Social Security battle all over again,” Americans United spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

But his group took no chances last week. It sprang into action, holding a national press call with Mr. Levin to criticize Mr. Bush’s plan, alerting local chapters and pressuring congressional leaders to declare the plan “dead on arrival” so it doesn’t gain any traction. “That’s what our effort over the next few days will be about,” Mr. Woodhouse said Thursday.

Mr. Schumer also took to the airwaves, saying Mr. Bush tried to sneak his proposal — which also would slow the growth rate of Social Security benefits for wealthier Americans — “through the back door.” He said the president’s plan wasn’t popular with the young or the old, but that Mr. Bush wants to “whisper” to his supporters that he’s still pushing for it.

Democrats said it was contradictory for Mr. Bush to suggest a bipartisan panel to explore various reform ideas while continuing to push his own plan.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy disagreed, saying Mr. Bush’s budget “simply reiterated what he said all of last year” about his Social Security plan, and “doesn’t color in any way” the outcome of the bipartisan commission.

“Whether it’s in the budget or not, hopefully the American people know and the Congress knows what the president believes,” Mr. Duffy said.

He also said the commission will be a good way for Democratic critics to finally voice their own ideas for Social Security.

“Here’s a forum where they can be part of the discussion,” Mr. Duffy said.

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