WASHINGTON – A second Senate Democrat said Friday he was open to President Bush's idea of letting people divert some of their Social Security taxes to personal retirement accounts as Republican Party leaders tried to allay re-election fears among wavering GOP lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Carper (search), D-Del., said any plan should be bipartisan, in part to give lawmakers from both parties political cover for supporting major changes to such the popular retirement program.
"I don't believe that we should rule out the accounts," Carper said Friday in an interview. "We have a very low savings rate in this country and clearly need to find ways to stimulate savings, and I think we should be open to a wide range of ideas and not dismiss them out of hand."
Sen. Ben Nelson (search), D-Neb., also has said he is open to discussing the private accounts, saying he wants to see details.
No Senate Democrat has signed onto a Social Security bill, and most say they are absolutely opposed to taking money from the traditional Social Security system to create these accounts. Several Democrats do like the idea of creating personal accounts on top of regular Social Security benefits.
In the House, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd (search) of Florida is backing a Social Security bill.
Bush is traveling the country, warning that Social Security's (search) long-term finances face trouble and touting private accounts as part of the solution. Trying to shore up support in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials are holding a series of meetings with Republican lawmakers, some of whom are nervous about backing Bush's proposal.
Pressing the point, the Republican National Committee worked to shore up support among nervous Republicans who see the issue as a threat to their 2006 re-election bids. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman e-mailed a memo Friday to more than 2 million supporters citing polling that shows personal accounts appeal to core conservative voters who are likely to hold significant sway in the 2006 elections.
"We do well when our base is motivated and turns out in large numbers," Mehlman said in an interview.
Under Bush's Social Security plan, workers under age 55 could divert part of their payroll taxes into private funds that could be invested in a limited array of mutual funds; in turn, in retirement, their traditional benefits would be reduced. Those traditional benefits might be reduced further — for all seniors — to put the program on solid financial footing.
Carper, who said he would prefer adding the accounts to the existing system, said he would have to see a comprehensive plan for diverting payroll taxes before deciding on supporting it.
"I believe that if we go down that road, establishing private accounts, we should do so in a way that does not significantly increase our federal budget deficit and does not significantly cut benefits for our parents or, frankly, for our kids," Carper said.
It will cost more than $1 trillion to transition to the private accounts, because they would take away money that is needed to pay current retirement benefits.
Carper suggested that Congress and the White House create a bipartisan commission like one that led to 1983 changes to shore up the system. At that time, Social Security was about to run out of money and Congress agreed to raise taxes and gradually increase the retirement age from 65 to 67.
Carper noted that at the time, Democrats were protected politically because President Reagan supported the recommendations, while Republicans were protected because then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., also supported them.
In his e-mail Friday, Mehlman said Republicans running for re-election in 2006 will be helped by this issue because core conservative voters strongly support personal accounts.
"Both 1994 and 2002 were successful, in significant part, because our base was motivated and turned out in higher numbers," Mehlman wrote.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Jano Cabrera responded that the Democratic base is equally fired up against the Bush plan: "We welcome any opportunity to run against Republicans in 2006 after they've cut Social Security benefits and added trillions to the federal deficit."