WASHINGTON – President Bush and leaders of both parties are reaffirming their promises to avoid tapping Social Security's surpluses, despite the suggestion by one top senator that diverting some of the money might make sense.
"I have repeatedly said the only time to use Social Security money is in times of war, times of recession or times of severe emergency," Bush told reporters Thursday. "And I mean that."
In remarks aimed at Democrats, Bush added, "Let's work together to make sure that our budgets don't cause us to dip into Social Security."
Bush's comments came on a day when Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee for the past two decades, said that with the economy slowing and overall federal surpluses dipping, it might be time to use some of the Social Security funds to pay for other programs.
"There is no reason in the world you should look at it for only one purpose, to pay the debt down," Domenici told the budget panel. "What's wrong with using it for education" or other purposes, he asked.
He added that in conversations with at least 15 economists, "None of them believe that is good economic policy for America to say we cannot touch those (funds) in time of declining growth."
With both parties looking for ways to avoid tapping into the surplus, Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, on Friday took one option off the table and said the president was open to another.
Fleischer said Bush will not support spending increases, but did not rule out backing an across-the-board spending cut being considered by GOP lawmakers.
"Under our budget, it is not necessary, but as the president has made clear to Congress, the focus should be on spending," he said.
Analysts agree that using a small part of Social Security's surplus — which is expected to exceed $170 billion next year — would not damage the program's solvency or have any effect on its ability to pay benefits.
But to burnish their images as fiscally responsible decision-makers, politicians of both parties have repeatedly promised in recent years to use Social Security surpluses only to reduce the national debt.
Even Domenici himself had stated that view repeatedly. On the Senate floor on June 29, 1999, he said, "We should save 100 percent of the money that belongs to the Social Security recipients of our country and we should not let it be squandered on anything else."
But he made those remarks at a time when the economy was soaring and the rest of the federal budget — not just Social Security — was expected to run sizable surpluses. Today, the latest official projections are that for the next few years, almost all that remains of projected federal surpluses comes from Social Security.
That has made many analysts doubtful that extra money for items both parties support can be found without dipping into Social Security's surpluses — especially if the economy continues at a crawl.
Some lawmakers and White House aides privately agree that using Social Security funds is ultimately likely. While Domenici's aides said he did not intend to endorse the idea, his public remarks were exceptional nonetheless.
At the Capitol, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said, "We're not going to dip into the Social Security trust funds in 2002, or 2001, if we can help it."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said members of both parties had made too many promises about leaving Social Security's funds alone to begin draining them now.
"This more than just an accounting issue," he said. "This is a moral issue. This is an issue having to do with our credibility."
And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said of Republicans, "They're going to double back on their promise, break their promise and raid the trust funds."
White House budget director Mitchell Daniels told the budget panel that claims that the program's trust funds or benefits are being raided or cut are untrue.
Domenici told reporters he believes leaders will find a way to avoid siphoning the Social Security surplus for fiscal 2002, which begins Oct. 1.
In the hearing room, he told his colleagues they could write upcoming spending bills without using the "fiction" of Social Security's trust funds, but said "you will be accomplishing the miraculous" by doing so.
Congress is working now on spending bills for next year, when Social Security is expected to be in the black by more than $170 billion. The rest of the near $2 trillion budget is projected to run a $2 billion surplus.
But budget projections worsen for 2003, when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects $18 billion in Social Security funds to be tapped.