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CARL P. LEUBSDORF Social Security causes stir on Hill



Published: Mon, August 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



As Ronald Reagan might have put it, there they go again.

Congressional Republicans, persisting in hopes of enacting some form of private Social Security option despite opposition from the public and the Democrats, are considering the same kind of maneuver that enabled them to pass a controversial Medicare drug bill two years ago.

That's the clear signal from key GOP congressional leaders and chief White House strategist Karl Rove, one of the main architects of the Social Security proposal that President Bush made his top 2005 priority.

Rove, speaking to college students and lobbyists before Congress went on its current recess, said the House would act next month and the Senate soon after, according to the congressional newspaper The Hill.

And Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and one of his party's canniest operatives, said without giving details that his panel would introduce a retirement security bill in September.

His comments were especially interesting given the divisions among Republicans whether a bill this year should tackle Social Security's long-term solvency problems or give priority to enacting a private option that could be expanded in future years.

The White House and its congressional allies have gone back and forth on whether to try to pass a Social Security bill first in the Senate or in the House.

Democratic opposition

But insufficient GOP support in the Senate Finance Committee and a solid wall of Democratic opposition that ensures enough votes to sustain a filibuster have forced them to look first to the House.

Solid Republican discipline there has enabled the party's narrow majority to prevail on vote after vote in recent years, most recently on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

None had as torturous a path to enactment as the bill to create a prescription drug program. It only passed in 2003 after three hours of early morning arm twisting and the help of misleading cost estimates that soon proved to have been understated.

Because the Senate had passed a similar bill, Republicans could take the measure to a Senate-House conference. By excluding most Democrats from any role, they crafted the kind of bill they wanted in the first place.

That would appear to be their hope for private Social Security accounts -- pass a bill in the House authorizing private accounts, accept any Social Security vehicle in the Senate that gets the issue to conference and write a final version letting the White House proclaim success.

In recent weeks, various members have floated several different versions that could form the basis of a GOP bill.

Some House Republicans, including Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, would use Social Security's current surpluses for private accounts, rather than to curb the overall budget deficit. But that not only would fail to address the system's solvency, it also is likely to make the budget situation worse.

Thomas has said he expects to address solvency, which became the top White House talking point after it became evident that neither the public nor Congress was ready to accept private accounts.

Pressure

Bush continues to press the Social Security issue in his speeches. And administration foes, buoyed by their success in shaping the debate, are using the August recess to maintain pressure on selected GOP members who are cool to the White House approach.

Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders moved to counter the GOP argument that they had no alternative by unveiling a retirement security bill to expand 401(k) plans outside Social Security.

In the end, any GOP success may depend, as it has before, on uniting virtually all House Republicans behind a compromise bill and picking up a small number of Senate Democrats. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Finance Committee, remains optimistic despite his inability to woo any Democrats so far.

"I'm not going to give up on personal accounts until the last minute," he told Bloomberg News.

That last minute probably won't come until close to Thanksgiving, or even Christmas Eve.

X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.




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