Thursday, March 3, 2005

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill sought to reassure the White House yesterday that President Bush’s plan for private accounts as part of Social Security is still alive for this year.

“We need to do it this year. Not next year, but this year,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who suggested this week that the earlier timetable might not be possible.

A series of newspaper articles and other press accounts followed, adding to the mounting problems facing Mr. Bush’s effort to allow younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll tax into private accounts.

Some Republicans have expressed skepticism about the idea and are discussing other alternatives, such as creating savings accounts outside of Social Security.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, also caused a flurry of negative press reports when he suggested on Wednesday that the Social Security debate should focus on ways to make the system solvent, rather than on the personal-accounts idea.

Yesterday, the Iowa Republican pledged his support for such accounts and noted that they “are on the table along with all the other ideas to strengthen Social Security.”

House conservatives, who insist that private accounts must be part of any Social Security bill, worry about such words from lawmakers, fearing that Republicans, in their eagerness to pass legislation, might end up sacrificing the centerpiece proposal of private Social Security accounts.

“I don’t worry about the president, I worry about statements like that from Frist and Grassley, though,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. “I don’t like to see Republicans getting squeamish on this.”

“They’re saying everything is on the table. … Well, that’s fine, but we ought to have certain principles we follow here,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican.

“In our zeal to get something done, we can get the wrong thing done,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who explained that conservatives want real private accounts “and not just something we can call Social Security reform.”

Conservatives note that the Office of the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration scored a private-accounts plan crafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican.

The office found that the large private accounts are enough to eliminate Social Security deficits over time, without cutting benefits or raising taxes.

The White House has “destroyed the message” because the president is not focusing on the financial benefits and other advantages of large private accounts, said Peter Ferrara, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation and a proponent of the Ryan bill.

Instead, Mr. Bush has been focusing on convincing people that Social Security faces a financial problem that merits action.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush told reporters he thinks he is “making progress on the first stage of getting anything complicated and difficult done in Washington. And that is to explain the problem.”

“The surveys I have seen, at least, say that the American people understand we have a problem,” Mr. Bush said.

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