WASHINGTON – A pair of Senate Republicans on Monday offered separate plans to overhaul Social Security (search), trying to turn President Bush's ideas into legislation that might be able to pass a recalcitrant Congress.
They join the crop of Social Security ideas sprouting like spring flowers. The question for Bush and his backers is will these ideas bloom or will stormy Washington weather blow them away?
One senator suggests reducing benefits as life expectancy rises. Another would cut benefits, but not for the poor. A third offers to raise taxes on the best-paid workers to pay for the private accounts Bush is pushing.
Democrats and their allies continue to pound away at the Bush plan. On Monday, the AFL-CIO (search) trumpeted success in persuading a financial services company, Waddell & Reed, to drop its membership in the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security (search), a group lobbying for personal accounts.
"The firm has a history of listening to its clients and being sympathetic and supportive of their issues. Please accept our withdrawal as such proof," John E. Sundeen Jr., the company's executive vice president, wrote to the AFL-CIO.
Democrats say personal accounts would tie benefit levels to fluctuations in the stock market, introducing risk to a critical anti-poverty program. They object to borrowing as much as $2 trillion to replace money needed to pay current benefits.
Some Republicans have also been skeptical about the Bush plan, but many in the GOP like it. All the legislative ideas they circulate on Capitol Hill include Bush's central idea: letting younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes (search) into private accounts, with a lower guaranteed benefit in trade.
Bush touts the private accounts as a way to boost the rate of return and give younger workers a sense of ownership. He talks generally about Social Security's financial problems, encouraging lawmakers to propose solutions.
Some are doing just that.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (search), R-Neb., introduced legislation Monday to reduce benefits by tying them to life expectancy, meaning all monthly checks would drop as average life span grows. He would also raise the retirement age from 67 to 68 and cut benefits for those who opt to start collecting Social Security at age 62 beyond the reduction already in place.
His plan includes personal accounts, though only for those under age 45. Everyone age 45 and up would remain in the current system. (The Bush plan keeps those 55 and up in the current system.)
Under Hagel's plan, younger workers would be automatically signed up for a personal account and have until age 25 to opt out and stay in the traditional system. Once in, workers could invest in the same five accounts now offered to federal workers through the Thrift Savings Plan (search).
"I'm not saying my plan is the only plan that should be looked at. There may be a better way to do it," Hagel said in an interview. "That's the point of this -- let's get some facts on the table. Right now we are dealing with theory."
Hagel, who is considering a run for president in 2008, noted that by 2018, the system will be paying more in benefits than it collects in taxes. By 2042, Social Security will only have enough money to pay 73 percent of promised benefits, according to the program's trustees.
"This reality is daunting, but there is good news in all of this. The system can be fixed. It is within our power to preserve the social safety net of this nation," Hagel said in a speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Another approach is being floated by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
Bennett would keep the system the same for the bottom 30 percent of workers, but the richest workers would see their benefits tied to rising prices, rather than wages, which amounts to a benefit cut of nearly 50 percent. Benefits for people in between would be based on a blend of the two measures, on a sliding scale.
Reaching out to Democrats, Bennett at first makes personal accounts voluntary add-ons to Social Security, where workers invest an additional slice of their wages, much as many Democrats have proposed. But after perhaps five years, workers could move some of the money from their Social Security taxes into these accounts.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that the administration welcomed "all ideas that are being put forward to solve the Social Security problem."
Hagel and Bennett join other Republicans with Social Security plans. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has suggested a plan that protects low-income workers from benefit cuts and pays for the personal accounts by increasing taxes on those who earn over $90,000 per year.
Others with Social Security legislation include Reps. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.