Social Security Reforms Could Make or Break Careers

For President Bush to succeed in his drive to let workers put part of their Social Security (search) taxes in private investment accounts, he'll have to persuade Republicans like Rep. Ray LaHood to vote for it, and that will take some doing.

"It's a no-win for people in the House," the moderate, 10-year House veteran from rural Illinois said recently. "We risk our political careers. We risk 30-second ads against you saying, 'You voted to gut Social Security.'"

There are more conservative lawmakers, though, who support Bush's idea. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says revamping the financially shaky pension program can be a political coup for Republicans.

Ryan concedes there's risk in reshaping Social Security, whose recipients include 32 million retired workers and dependents who don't want their benefits cut. But he sees a huge political upside: winning the gratitude of investment-savvy younger voters who see the program's monthly checks as financially stodgy.

"Younger voters, that's just a layup," Ryan said. "When they see the Democratic Party trying to oppose giving them access to their own Social Security (investment) account, that's a political winner for us and a loser for them."

There is little disagreement that Social Security needs to be bolstered because sometime during the next decade annual benefits paid out will start exceeding revenues coming in. There's a schism, though, among Republicans over the political wisdom of Bush's approach to the problem.

In part, that reflects a longtime Washington axiom that Social Security is such a popular program — especially with seniors, who vote heavily — that even tinkering with it in any way is politically radioactive.

"What's in it for them is big, big trouble" if Republicans take up the issue, said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman.

GOP lawmakers and their aides have little doubt Social Security will be debated seriously next year, perhaps dominating the session. But with opposition from most Democrats and AARP (search), the huge advocacy group for the elderly, few Republicans are willing to predict whether Congress will actually transform the $500 billion-a-year program.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said last week that Social Security "will be a priority" next year — but added that it's too early to predict the outcome. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has said some Democratic support will be needed to prevail.

With growing numbers of younger Americans accustomed to stock market and other investments, many Republicans believe they can snare a lasting political victory among the nation's 20- and 30-somethings. First, however, they acknowledge they must carefully lay the groundwork, assuring seniors and workers nearing retirement that their benefits won't be reduced.

"If you do it the right way, you get credit for solving a problem," said John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert. "It will brand Republicans as reformers."

These Republicans argue that 2005 is the ideal time to act, but add that the window is a small one. The GOP controls the White House and Congress, Bush does not have to worry about running for re-election, and the next campaign season isn't until 2006 — when the political atmosphere will make action much tougher.

Bush has yet to provide specifics for his plan. He is expected to propose letting workers divert some — perhaps 2 percentage points — of the 6.2 percent payroll tax on wages into investment accounts. Those opening such accounts may have to accept smaller regular Social Security benefits in exchange.

Republicans say most Americans realize something has to happen to protect the solvency of a program that many young people doubt will even be there by the time they retire.

Even so, with Social Security's insolvency projected for 2042, many Republicans will be tempted to leave the problem's resolution to future Congresses. "Cowardice is always an option," said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a supporter of moving ahead next year.

Those supporting Bush's effort say it will take time to ease their colleagues' concerns.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., a supporter of the drive, said those needing "a lot of hand-holding" include lawmakers from districts with many elderly voters, those facing close re-election races and those who have yet to closely examine the issue. He estimated that at least 125 to 150 of the 232 House Republicans fall into one or more of those three categories.