WASHINGTON – Congressional action on Social Security (search) legislation, President Bush's top domestic priority, may not come anytime soon.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (search), who earlier predicted his panel would deal with a bill in early June, said Wednesday it may not get to it until September at the earliest.
Meanwhile, the head of the Senate Finance Committee said he hoped a meeting Thursday morning might spur some action, though he was not sure it would.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the schedule for his Ways and Means committee bogged down because of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search) and other legislation.
"The issue is dealing with more time-sensitive legislation first," Thomas said. Social Security "is not time-sensitive, and we are going to pass CAFTA" before Congress begins its summer recess at the end of the month.
Thomas was quick to say about Social Security legislation: "There's no hang-up on contents. It's just how many days we got and how many space shuttles don't get off the ground."
The House delayed its votes and curtailed some committee action Wednesday so members could attend the launch of the space shuttle Discovery, which ended up being scrubbed because of an equipment problem.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 Republican in the House, told reporters he doubted lawmakers would deal with the bill this month. That would delay the debate until fall, when the Senate is expected to be consumed with a Supreme Court confirmation battle.
Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee (search), told reporters Tuesday he was unsure when his committee would begin work on Social Security legislation.
His staff is expected to outline several ideas for the committee's Republican members during a business meeting Thursday, but two of those members have expressed doubts about Bush's proposal, which includes personal investment accounts.
"I don't feel that negative about it, but who knows," said Grassley, R-Iowa, acknowledging the pessimistic atmosphere surrounding the legislation. He said a Supreme Court battle could further delay action.
While Bush has made overhauling Social Security his domestic priority, Congress has reacted slowly, reflecting lukewarm public support for the White House's approach.
Thomas initially said the House committee would review legislation in early June. He later backed off that timetable before offering a further revision Wednesday.
He said the Social Security Administration (search) and the Congressional Budget Office have reviewed proposed elements of his plan, which will focus on overall retirement security.
The legislation is expected to deal with long-term care, the estate tax, personal savings and perhaps the private accounts supported by the president.
On that point, Thomas is supporting a plan by some committee Republicans to stock the accounts with bonds issued in the amount of surplus payroll taxes collected each year by the Social Security Administration.
"Now you can begin putting the pieces together, knowing the cost and relationship," Thomas said, highlighting the agency reviews. He refused to be more specific about the elements with which he was working.