WASHINGTON – Key Senate Republicans are considering gradually raising the Social Security (search) retirement age as high as 69 over several years as they struggle to jump-start legislation that President Bush has placed atop his second-term agenda, officials said Tuesday.
Under current law, the retirement age for full Social Security benefits is 651/2 and is scheduled to reach 67 for those born in 1960 or later.
The possible increase to 69 over two decades or more was among the suggestions that Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (search), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, presented to fellow Republicans on the panel last week as part of an attempt to give the program greater financial solvency, the officials said.
Grassley also suggested steps to hold down benefits for upper-wage earners of the future, these officials have said previously. They spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying the discussions were confidential.
The disclosures surfaced as Bush campaigned in Pennsylvania for changes in Social Security, including creation of voluntary personal accounts for younger workers — a step that would be accompanied by a reduction in the promised government benefit.
Speaking to a convention of the Pennsylvania FFA — formerly known as the Future Farmers of America (search) — Bush said he wants to "make sure the system is a better deal for younger workers" and assured older people in the audience that they would continue to get their promised benefits.
The students would get the same benefits that seniors today receive, Bush said, without mentioning that his plans involve a reduction in the benefits younger Americans have been promised in their own retirement.
In a fresh illustration of the political stakes surrounding the issue, Democrats charged that rural Americans would be hit hardest by Bush's plans, which they consistently describe as privatization.
"Rural Americans tend to be older and more likely to depend on Social Security. In fact, more than 90 percent of counties in America with high senior populations are rural counties. In 2001, 20 percent of rural Americans were 60 years old or older, significantly higher than the 15 percent of seniors living in metropolitan communities," Reps. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., and Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., said in a joint statement. The two co-chair the Democratic House Rural Working Group.
Republicans on the Finance Committee are scheduled to meet privately on Thursday as they continue searching for agreement among themselves on legislation that achieves the goals Bush laid out in his State of the Union address last winter.
The fate of the effort is unclear, and some Republicans in Congress have suggested in recent days that the issue may not reach the Senate floor until September at the earliest. House Republicans have said in the past it's possible they will wait for the Senate to act first before they plunge into the politically sensitive issue.
The president has called for a bill to create permanent solvency for the program, and he also wants the bill to give younger workers the option of establishing a personal retirement account financed from a portion of their payroll taxes.
Under current predictions, Social Security will begin to pay out more in benefits than it receives in tax receipts in 2017, and the trust funds will be depleted in 2041. At that point, benefits will be cut to adjust for the reduction in available funds.
Along with curbs in benefits or increases in taxes, raising the retirement age is one of three general approaches that lawmakers can consider as they try to improve the solvency of Social Security.
Officials statistics show that Americans, on average, can expect to live longer than was the case when Social Security was created, meaning that they will receive more in lifetime government benefits than projected. At the same time, there are fewer workers paying into the Social Security trust funds per retiree than was the case in past decades.
Raising the retirement age is unpopular, according to some surveys.
Several officials said Grassley's suggestion for raising the retirement age would be phased in, possibly over two decades or more. The details would depend on future demographic trends, they said.
Crafting legislation has proven to be a challenge in Congress, even though the president has campaigned energetically in an attempt to build public support for his proposals. With public opinion polls showing tepid support for personal accounts, many Republicans have been reluctant to embrace the idea.
For their part, Democrats are unified in their opposition and threatening to use the issue as a major theme in the 2006 elections, when all members of the House and one-third of the Senate are on the ballot.