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Social Security action unlikely this session

Sunday, March 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposal to overhaul Social Security is unlikely to come to a vote in the current two-year Congress, according to Republicans who cite competing priorities as well as political concerns.

Instead, legislation to let workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes will probably hinge on next year's election. That would give Bush a chance to try and rally public opinion behind the idea as he bids for a second term.

The topic "is not on the short list," for this year, said Rep. Clay Shaw, chairman of a House subcommittee on Social Security. The Florida Republican said that "if we don't do it this year, we may very well be looking past the 2004 election."

In his State of the Union address in January, Bush gave the topic less emphasis than tax cuts and legislation to "reform and strengthen Medicare," including prescription drug coverage. He asked Congress to act this year on those priorities, but set no timetable for steps to shore up Social Security.

One Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House has indicated to Congress that Bush wants to campaign with a Medicare plan in place, and tell voters it shows Republicans can be trusted to address the long-term financing of Social Security.

In Congress, Senate Republicans omitted Social Security from their list of priorities recently when they issued their top 10 bills for the two-year Congress that convened in January.

Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said leaders have not made an "affirmative decision." But, he added, "It is not currently on the schedule because the first measure that has to be dealt with is Medicare prescription drugs."

Crowded agenda

In the House, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the congressional agenda is "pretty crowded" with the possible war in Iraq, plans to stimulate the economy and updating Medicare.

"But our goal remains to strengthen Social Security for the long term," John Feehery said.

Other senior GOP aides say that privately, congressional leaders have shown little or no interest in voting on Social Security legislation in the near future, particularly given the battering the stock market has taken in recent years.

"No rational person thinks you have to tackle Medicare and Social Security in the same Congress," said one Republican official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both programs are politically sensitive, and in recent campaigns, Democrats have attacked Republican proposals as dangerous to the tens of millions of people enrolled in them. At the same time, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress recently to move as quickly as possible to fix a system that will be paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes beginning in 2017.

"Early initiatives to address the economic effects of baby boom retirements could smooth the transition to a new balance between workers and retirees. If we delay, the adjustments could be abrupt and painful," he told a Senate committee.

The Social Security trustees release their annual report Monday on the state of the program's funding, and Bush is expected to use the occasion to underscore his support for his proposals.

In addition, the White House has held meetings in recent weeks for lawmakers, their aides, and members of outside groups interested in advancing the president's Social Security agenda.

The White House and its allies in Congress say they envision a long-term campaign to lay the groundwork for legislation.

"There is a group of new members that was elected in campaigns where Social Security was a premier issue," said first-term Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who fended off an aggressive attack on the issue by his opponent last fall. "So we're interesting in maintaining the debate at a high level."

Another newly elected GOP senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, intends to seek a vote in the Senate this week on a nonbinding proposal that calls for legislation "at the earliest opportunity."

In an interview, Graham said, "We need to create a sense of urgency. The idea of putting Social Security off to the perfect political moment will never be achieved."

Bush campaigned energetically on behalf of his proposal when he ran for president in 2000. But the core of his first-year legislative agenda consisted of tax cuts and an education bill. Most domestic priorities were shunted aside after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Hastert told Bush the House would not undertake Social Security legislation in 2002, according to Republican sources. That reflected a feeling among GOP leaders that the issue was too politically risky to address in the run-up to midterm elections.

Democrats did seek to make Social Security a key issue in the campaign, accusing Republicans of wanting to "privatize" the system.

Republicans worked in advance of last year's elections to blunt any political damage, testing television commercials designed to mimic presumed Democratic criticisms. Strategists advised candidates to talk of "personal retirement accounts" rather than "privatizing."

And many Republican candidates stressed they opposed any measures that would raise taxes, cut benefits or raise the retirement age.

Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, has told groups in recent months he continues to view Social Security as a winning political issue for Republicans.

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