WASHINGTON – President Bush's effort to get Congress moving on Social Security (search) by proposing cuts in benefits for high and middle-income retirees has exposed a fissure in the House Republican leadership.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) and many conservatives unhappy with the Senate's cautious approach want a House bill on Social Security ready as soon as possible, while Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) prefers to wait and let the Senate act first, according to Republican aides.
No sooner had Bush completed his news conference last week than the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee announced fresh hearings on Social Security legislation. In his zeal to act, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the next day he wants his panel to produce a bill by early June.
Hastert, fearful of having his members take a stand unnecessarily, wants the Senate to act on a bill first, said the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One said the speaker does not want the House to risk antagonizing voters before the 2006 midterm election by passing a tough Social Security bill that gets dropped in the Senate.
In addition, a top Republican pollster is urging party leaders to make job and economic issues their priority, rather than Social Security.
"With gas prices on the rise, the focus of the public is back on the economy and jobs," pollster David Winston said in a confidential memorandum delivered Monday to GOP leaders. "This should be our primary communications objective and one of the top legislative priorities."
The rift was exposed shortly after Bush's news conference Thursday night, when he tried to kickstart legislative deliberations by announcing his support of "progressive indexing" for Social Security benefits.
Low-wage workers would continue to see their retirement benefits linked to wage growth, keeping them apace with a gradually rising standard of living as well as price increases. Benefits for the remaining 70 percent of future retirees would keep pace with price inflation but not with living standard improvements over their working lives.
The president has suggested that cuts in benefits for middle and upper-income workers could be offset by gains from personal investment accounts (search) funded by a diversion of some of their Social Security payroll taxes.
Thomas promised to hold hearings weekly beginning May 12 "until we produce legislation, probably in the early part of June." A spokeswoman refined his remarks Monday, saying Thomas expected to act sometime this summer, not necessarily in early June.
DeLay, R-Texas, joined the chorus for quick action. An aide said he was particularly concerned that personal accounts remain in the formula after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he might omit them from the bill he intends to produce before August. He said he expects the decision on the accounts to be made by the full Senate.
Democratic leaders in both houses have said they won't participate in writing a bill until Bush jettisons the idea of letting younger workers divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into individual retirement accounts. That has drawn the ire of some conservative activists.
"Republicans in the House must rescue the Social Security debate from the clutches of the bean counters who have bewitched the administration and most moderate Senate Republicans into obsessing over solvency," Steve Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund (search), said in a memo last month.
Hastert, R-Ill., issued a statement last week applauding Thomas's hearings, but Republican aides said Monday the speaker's enthusiasm is muted.
"We're expecting the Senate to go first," one aide said Monday.