Social Security Appears to Be DOA in Senate

Posted September 19, 2005 at 7:04pm

Though it might be premature to say the nail is in the coffin of President Bush’s push to overhaul Social Security, there appear to be plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill these days who are willing to serve as pallbearers.[IMGCAP(1)]

In fact, with last week’s revelation that National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) thinks that voting on a Social Security overhaul would be political suicide for House Republicans in 2006, Senate leaders are doing little to quell a notion, floated by Reynolds, that any measure offering personal investment accounts under the government’s retirement security program would be dead on arrival in the Senate.

Asked if Reynolds was correct to assume that the Senate would be unable or unwilling to take up Social Security in this Congress, Senate Majority Whip

Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “It is my personal opinion that Social Security reform ought only to go forward on a bipartisan basis. And as of this moment … I am unaware of any Democrat who has signed on” to negotiations over personal accounts.

Indeed, Democrats in both chamber have steadfastly refused to even consider the notion of private accounts, saying that the change would make current promised benefits to retirees subject to the whims of Wall Street, and the costs to transition to private accounts would bankrupt the system.

On Monday, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) unveiled “lockbox” legislation that would keep Social Security revenues from being used for anything other than benefits — a proposal that places the focus on the solvency of the existing program rather than on a major overhaul. Bush’s plan, “in my opinion, is not going anywhere,” he told reporters.

Republican backers of the president’s plan, however, argue that personal investment accounts are the only way to salvage a retirement system slated to become insolvent by mid-century and that retirees stand to reap even more money from the stock market than they are guaranteed under Social Security.

Of course, the uppermost worry among Reynolds and other Republicans with cold feet on Social Security is not about whether the Bush plan will work. Rather, their concern is whether voting to create private accounts will trigger a voter backlash that significantly weakens the GOP Congressional majority — or even hands control to the Democrats.

Indeed, one aide to a Senate Finance Committee Republican said that Reynolds’ concerns mirror those of many Senate Republicans who have been “privately for months … voicing the same concerns.”

“I don’t think we have the time [on the Senate floor schedule], and I don’t think we have the political will,” the aide said.

Even one of the most vocal supporters of private accounts, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), acknowledged that Republicans in the Senate are skittish about taking up Social Security before the 2006 midterm elections.

“I think the Senate, like the House, has got to get over being afraid for ourselves,” Graham said. “It’s a short-sighted view for our party to put off addressing this issue. There will never be a politically opportune time.”

Despite admonitions like that from true believers, it isn’t as if Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are clearing their chambers’ schedules for the debate, especially given the onslaught of legislation related to Hurricane Katrina in both chambers, plus two Supreme Court nominees for the Senate to confirm.

While the timeline for House action this fall on Social Security was vague to begin with, Hastert gave an even hazier timeline when asked about it by reporters last week. “Social Security is something very important. It’s something we’ve talked about doing, and when we decide to move forward we’ll let the press know,” he said, adding that the House is focused on aiding Katrina evacuees first.

Similarly, Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said the Senator is “still interested in considering Social Security reform,” but noted the loaded Senate schedule has pushed the issue off the front burner. “We’ll see where we are later in the fall,” she said.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also put Social Security at the bottom of his list recently, saying that the response to Katrina, Supreme Court nominations, a budget reconciliation bill and the 12 annual appropriations bills take precedence, according to a spokeswoman.

Still, Grassley noted that if the House takes action on Social Security, it could give the issue added momentum in the Senate.

However, Senate Finance ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Republicans are just giving lip service about their intentions on Social Security at this point.

“It’s all bluster,” he said. “Private accounts have a close-to-zero chance of being enacted this year. … I think Grassley’s stock is also close to zero on this.”

Though Reynolds and others fear the repercussions of voting on Social Security at the ballot box, the crisis management in Washington over the botched recovery from Katrina is providing Republican leaders with a handy excuse for sidelining Social Security for the rest of this Congress.

“Katrina is the perfect way for Republicans to bow out gracefully without making the president look bad,” said an aide to a Finance Republican.

Many Republicans already have acknowledged that trying to bring up the subject during an election year would most certainly spell political death.

Of course, there are a few holdouts trying to give the issue fresh energy, notably, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). Santorum is pushing a bill that would guarantee that senior citizens 55 or older would continue to receive their promised Social Security benefits if private accounts were introduced for younger workers.

Santorum is reportedly hoping to move his bill alongside a measure by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would give workers born after 1950 the option of placing part of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts. DeMint, like Santorum, has expressed a desire to move forward with the plan as well.

Santorum has said the bill will assure seniors that Democratic scare tactics on Social Security are just that, but the introduction of the bill also appears to be a tacit acknowledgement that those Democratic tactics are working.

And, of course, Bush has shown no signs of accepting or acknowledging defeat. He’s meeting this week with the very people who recommended he push private accounts in the first place — his 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security.