WASHINGTON – Senate Republican leaders are considering whether to seek Democratic support for Social Security legislation without the personal accounts (search) sought by President Bush, aiming to restore them later, officials said Thursday.
Any such move would mark a tactical shift and could anger the White House, which is in the midst of an intensive 60-day campaign to sell Bush's approach to the public.
The internal discussions among top Senate Republicans come at a time when the drive to overhaul Social Security (search) — the centerpiece of Bush's agenda — appears stalled. Democrats routinely attack his proposed accounts as privatization, and adamantly resist the idea of including them in any legislation designed to shore up the program's finances.
With public opinion polls showing modest support at best for Bush's plan, Republicans have yet to coalesce behind a proposal of their own.
Several officials familiar with the discussions among GOP leaders said the lawmakers are wary of creating the impression they are jettisoning the centerpiece of Bush's plan.
In the end, they are determined to have something along the lines of what the president wants, said one official, echoing sentiments expressed by others.
These officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the topic.
They said top Republicans discussed an approach under which they would effectively acquiesce in an attempt to test the waters for bipartisan legislation without personal accounts. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, has had meetings with members of both parties in recent months in hopes of jump-starting compromise talks.
In response, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Bush "welcomes any activity that moves us" in the direction of solvency for Social Security as well as personal accounts.
A spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid declined to comment.
In the House, majority Republicans are also proceeding with caution on the issue, concerned about possible political repercussions in the 2006 midterm elections.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the GOP whip, declined this week to set a timetable for action, although he said the leadership remains committed to passing legislation this year.
Bush urged Congress in January to approve legislation that would create permanent financial solvency (search) for Social Security, and include an option for younger workers to set aside a portion of their payroll tax for personal investment.
In exchange, all workers under 55 would receive lower benefits than they are now guaranteed under the law.
Bush and other supporters of these accounts say they could lead to a more robust return on investments for millions of workers and allow them to build retirement nest eggs.
To support their call for an overhaul of the program, they cite forecasts that without action, the Social Security trust funds will be depleted in 2041 and all benefits will be cut as a result.
In the Senate, officials say leaders are far less interested in an alternative under which Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, would draft a bipartisan bill without personal accounts.
Grassley intends to hold hearings this month and present legislation to the committee this summer. He told reporters from his home state this week that while Democrats are united against personal accounts, he believes there are several who are willing to discuss the outlines of a bill to make Social Security solvent.
Numerous proposals have been floated to address the program's long-term funding problems, including extending the payroll tax beyond the current limit of $90,000 in income, raising the retirement age or reducing benefits for future retirees.
In a call-in news conference, Grassley said a proposal by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, has been the topic of much discussion. It involves reducing guaranteed benefit levels for future retirees, based on the income they earned over their careers. There would be no reduction for future retirees in the bottom 30 percent of wage earners, and current beneficiaries would be unaffected.
Bush's proposal has triggered a fierce, nationwide campaign-style debate, with supporters and opponents alike spending millions.
This week, for example, a newly created group, www.ProtectYourCheck.org, announced plans to spend nearly $1 million on an ad criticizing Bush's plans. It shows an iceberg poking out of the ocean while the announcer says, "Look below the surface and you'll find ... benefit checks cut almost in half. $5 trillion in new debt."
For his part, Bush traveled to an Office of Public Debt facility in Parkersburg, W. Va., to dramatize his claim that without changes, the government will not be able to pay full benefits beginning in 2041.
"It's time to strengthen and modernize Social Security for future generations with growing assets that you can control, that you call your own — assets that the government can't take away," he said.