WASHINGTON – Although he considers it "morally wrong" to put off dealing with Social Security, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday he agrees with fellow Republicans that changes in the venerable domestic program can't be forced upon an unwilling American public.
"What we need to do is really demonstrate the reality of the problem," said Frist, R-Tenn.
Whether the solvency of Social Security (search) in the decades ahead presents an imminent danger today — and whether President Bush's call for private accounts is key to the solution — divided lawmakers appearing on Sunday talk shows.
"The president's plan is not receiving rave reviews by anyone," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "Seniors as well as politicians on Capitol Hill in both parties have a lot of skepticism."
In 2018, according to agency estimates, Social Security is expected to begin paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. In 2042, its trust funds (search) would be empty and, by law, benefit cuts would begin to make up the difference from what taxes bring in.
"We have a catastrophe that can happen unless we act," Frist told "Fox News Sunday." "Politicians can kick it off to the future, which I think is morally wrong, or we can address it now. We need to first make sure the American people understand there's a problem."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Bush is trying to define the problem. "He's going to force the people of this country to concentrate on it," Grassley said.
The Bush administration has referred to Social Security funding as a crisis. However, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and other Democrats contended that no crisis exists with a program that can function unchanged for nearly 40 years.
Rangel, senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Republicans are trying to scare young people into believing their benefits are not going to be there when they retire. He also said a bipartisan solution is necessary for such a complicated problem.
"There is no Democrat in the House of Representatives, on my committee, that this president has reached out for," Rangel said. "I'm telling you now, Social Security reform by the president is dead, and he killed it."
Bush has proposed allowing workers under 55 to divert a significant portion of their payroll taxes into personal investments in stocks and bonds. Making up the difference, however, could cost $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion. Bush has not said how the transition costs would be funded.
"I believe in them," Frist said of personal accounts, "but it's not the only answer."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., told CBS's "Face the Nation" that spending up to $2 trillion now would save up to $11 trillion in long-term liabilities, which Santorum called "a wise investment in the future of Social Security."
The president has to let Americans know exactly what he envisions in a Social Security overhaul, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
"On November 2nd, President Bush (search) won the coin toss," Durbin said. "He receives. He's going to get the ball and get a chance to move down the field. But first he has to show us his plays. What's he want to see in this Social Security change? The devil is in the details."
Others questioned the impact of personal accounts on the tax system.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., on ABC's "This Week," said he favors personal accounts but it would have to adjust the benefit structure for older people, and it probably has to affect the tax burden.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said "there is a kernel of a good idea with individual accounts" because there needs to be a way to get a higher rate of return on Social Security funds. However, Conrad said he won't support a plan financed by massive debt.
On Medicare (search), Frist said there is no reason to unravel a "a very strong bill" before it's even started. Although the cost of the prescription drug benefit set to begin in 2006 has nearly doubled to $724 billion in its first decade, Bush has said he would veto attempts to alter it.
Gregg, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said some changes in the drug benefit are necessary to make it affordable.
"There has to be spending restraint in that program," Gregg said. "It was estimated to be a $400 billion program over 10 years. That's what it should be."