Rough road for social security bailout

The repair package of the National Commission on Social Security Reform has begun to move slowly through Congress. House hearings on the package began Monday. Prospects for its eventual passage appear good. Political leaders of both parties still strongly support the measure.

But even as the package picks up steam, a few warning signs have appeared:

* Washington is rumbling with the lobbying efforts of disgruntled special-interest groups. The American Association of Retired Persons has sent letters to 600,000 elderly voters in key congressional districts, asking them to agitate against the proposed reforms.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), irked by the prospect of higher payroll taxes, is talking strategy with the three commissioners who voted against the package.

''The first thing you hear on Capitol Hill is that if you start to fool with this thing it will all unravel,'' says David Cullen, an NFIB spokesman.

The Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement (FAIR), an umbrella group of 25 federal employee unions, is running advertisements in Washington news media claiming that including new federal employees in social security, as the commission has proposed, would harm the social security system in the long run. The American Postal Workers Union will next week hold a teleconference for 15, 000 of its members on grass-roots lobbying techniques. The American Federation of Government Employees is planning to march on Capitol Hill next month.

''Federal workers are going to be rioting in the streets,'' moans an aide to a member of the national commission.

* Congress has begun to squabble over a chink left uncovered by the commission's recommendations - social security's long-term deficit.

The package of reforms proposed by the commission would close only two-thirds of the financing shortfall social security will experience after the year 2010, when the crest of the baby boom hits retirement age. Many members of Congress, including Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas and Rep. J. J. Pickle (D) of Texas, chairman of the House social security subcommittee, favor gradually raising the retirement age to plug the rest of this gap. Others, including Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida would prefer an additional tax hike to take effect after the turn of the century.

During a Ways and Means Committee hearing on social security Wednesday, Congressmen Pickle and Pepper had a table-thumping argument over the issue. Pepper, his foghorn voice rising to fill the cavernous chamber, said raising the retirement age was a cut in benefits, and ''if we put one item in there cutting benefits, I cannot support this package. . . . When I say don't cut benefits, I mean now or ever after.''

As chairman of the House Rules Committee, Pepper could stall any bill he doesn't like.

''Mr. Chairman, you pose a problem for all of us in this Congress,'' sighed Representative Pickle in reply.

But deadlock over the long-term financing gap wouldn't necessarily unravel the political consensus that has formed around the package proposed by the commission. Congress could simply follow in the commission's footsteps, by agreeing on short-term repairs, while leaving the long-term problem unresolved.

By expecting a solution to the long-term problems,''you're perhaps asking Congress to do more than it really thinks it needs to,'' says an aide to a member of the House leadership.

But Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski has indicated his hopes that Congress will ''have the steel'' to come to grips with the long-term problem, as a matter of institutional pride.

In any case, support for the commission's short-term recommendations appears to be solidifying. The National Council of Senior Citizens has grudgingly endorsed the package, the first organization of the elderly to do so. The Business Roundtable stands behind the package.

Defeating the package ''is a very long shot,'' admits a lobbyist who opposes it. ''Something has to happen soon. The stronger that leadership lock becomes,'' he says, the faster the repairs will move through Congress.

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