WASHINGTON – It will be 2009, after the next presidential election, before lawmakers seriously consider overhauling Social Security, the chairman of the Senate panel overseeing the program said Tuesday.
Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he's "very pessimistic" that lawmakers can act before the end of President Bush's second term on Social Security ideas that Bush made the centerpiece of this year's legislative agenda.
"I'm pessimistic that it could come up before 2009," Grassley told an audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Doesn't mean that I won't try to bring it up before 2009."
Between now and 2009, the political environment will heat up for midterm congressional elections and then the next presidential election.
Bush acknowledged at a press conference last month that Congress has little appetite for taking on the issue this year, even after he made dozens of speeches nationwide.
"I did make some progress convincing the American people there was a problem," Bush said. "And I'm going to continue talking about the problem because I strongly believe that the role of those of us in Washington, one role is to confront problems."
The need to confront problems with Social Security's long-term financial health means lawmakers don't have to wait for upcoming congressional and presidential elections, said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who heads the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.
"I think that it is possible for us to pass Social Security reform either next year or the year after, simply because the problem is not going away," McCrery said. "I think both Democrats and Republicans recognize that this problem is not going away."
At this year's State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to establish personal accounts for individual Social Security beneficiaries and make necessary changes to shore up the program's long-term financial health.
Grassley said Bush had campaigned on Social Security issues and therefore entered his second term with "somewhat of a mandate" to address the retirement and disability program, but efforts to unite the GOP around a single plan failed. Lawmakers developed several proposals, but none advanced to a vote.
Grassley held 15 sessions with fellow Republicans on the Finance Committee but couldn't find common ground even in that group, and upcoming elections won't make that any easier. "I can't even get a consensus among Republicans," he said.
Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for a group called Americans United to Protect Social Security that led the opposition to Bush's plans, said it may, indeed, take until 2009 to re-engage in the debate over the program's financial health.
The president's proposed accounts are "as dead as a doornail for the foreseeable future," he said.
Derrick Max, executive director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, said Grassley's prognosis is "overly pessimistic." His group is a coalition of businesses that want to see the proposed private accounts enacted.
"I still think there's a chance early next year," he said. "There's a growing sense among the American people that our fiscal house needs to be put in order."
But if the issue turns against Republicans and others who want to restructure the program in upcoming elections, Max said, it could be a long time before lawmakers take up the topic again.