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WH: Disabled Worker Benefits Can Be Debated

Future Social Security (search) retirement benefits for disabled workers is a matter for negotiations with Congress as it drafts solvency legislation, the Bush administration said Thursday, declining to say whether they should be raised, lowered or left unchanged.

"Any plan that maintains current disability benefits will need to address the transition to retirement, and those details will be worked out through the legislative process," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

Under Social Security, disabled workers qualify for a benefit until they reach retirement age. At that point, in a bookkeeping move, Social Security switches them to a retirement benefit of the same amount.

President Bush has long said he wants to maintain the existing disability benefit structure.

At the same time, he has spoken favorably of a solvency (search) plan that would curtail the growth of retirement benefits for middle-income and higher-income workers of the future.

That leaves open the issue of future retirement benefits for disabled workers (search).

Duffy said the administration is not proposing to adjust future retirement benefits for the disabled in the same way as it wants them changed for the non-disabled. "Those two populations will be treated differently," he said.

At the same time, he declined to say there would be no change.

On Wednesday, the administration's point man on Social Security, Allan Hubbard, said the approach Bush favors would mean smaller survivor benefits than projected for many children and widows.

Supporters of Bush's proposals say that without changes, Social Security is projected to lose the ability to pay full benefits in 2041.

Even so, opponents of the administration's plan quickly found fault with the disclosure. "President Bush needs to stop misleading the American people and come clean about the details of his privatization scheme," said DNC spokesman Josh Earnest. "Under his scheme, the only thing that Americans will be leaving to their children is trillions in debt and reduced benefits."

The criticism dovetailed with remarks at a House hearing where Democrats repeatedly accused the president of trying to privatize the program and cut benefits for million of retirees.

Rep. Jim McCrery (news, bio, voting record), R-La., countered that the criticism showed that "the level of ignorance is pretty deep here," adding: "I'm beginning to think it's on purpose."

But his complaint did nothing to stem the Democratic assault. "You don't like the term. I'm sorry. It's privatization," said Rep. Sander Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich.

The partisanship erupted at the first in a series of House Ways and Means Committee hearings that majority Republicans say will lead to legislation.

The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, told reporters afterward that he intended to write a bill that goes beyond the issue of Social Security solvency. It also will consider pensions, private investments such as IRAs or 401(k) retirement plans and other retirement security concerns.

Specifically, Thomas, R-Calif., noted an interest in measures to help low-income widows and women who spend part of their working lives at home raising children.

"I do think we need to look at how much the society has changed and how we need to change the structure" since Congress made the last major changes in Social Security in 1983, he said earlier in a formal opening statement.

Bush wants Congress to enact legislation that would place Social Security on a permanently stable financial foundation. To do so, he has spoken favorably of an approach that would leave many middle-income and higher-income retirees of the future with lower benefits than they are currently promised.

At the same time, Bush wants to give younger workers the chance to put a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts.