WASHINGTON – A plan by a presidential commission to allow workers to invest some Social Security taxes in the stock market could be delayed until next year because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The White House and the commission's staff were weighing political and practical consequences of backing off from the fall deadline President Bush set to receive plans for the overhaul.
"Right now the president is focused on winning the war against terrorism," said White House spokesman Jim Wilkinson. "However, ensuring the retirement security of all generations of Americans remains a key domestic priority for the president."
Bush assembled the commission to devise a plan to shore up future funding for Social Security that would let younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But the troubled times since Sept. 11 are placing the fall deadline in question.
Commission spokesman Randy Clerihue said no decisions have been made about a delay.
The commission canceled a public hearing in Cincinnati last week. An Oct. 18 meeting in Washington is still planned.
Commissioner Tim Penny, a Democrat and former Minnesota congressman, said the panel had not expected Bush to press forward with legislation this year, so a delay wouldn't hurt the report.
Domestic concerns such as Social Security are now eclipsed by issues involving the military, international affairs and national security.
The president must lead the charge to garner support for a major overhaul of the nation's 66-year-old retirement system, and that's almost impossible now, said David John, senior Social Security analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
"The president has to be directly involved, and the president has only a certain amount of hours in the day," he said.
The attacks also have rocked Wall Street, making a plan for personal investment accounts even more difficult to sell. The Dow last week posted its biggest point loss and fifth worst week ever.
Other political consequences are being weighed, such as handing Democratic opponents a weapon with a delay. Bush must convince the public that he hasn't softened on private accounts, especially going into the congressional election next year, John said. Voters' anti-terrorism fervor could fade, focusing their concerns on domestic issues such as Social Security, he said.
"The one thing the White House cannot afford if the debate turns back to Social Security is to have a commission that has not reported well before the 2002 elections," he said. "They need to have all the answers and they need to have time to sell their solution."