Politics offers little security on the prospects for reform

It's like a sorely needed Social Security check that, day after day, fails to show up in the mailbox.

President Clinton for months has delivered important speeches and convened blue-ribbon meetings about the imperative to reform the nation's sinking Social Security program.

In this blizzard of words, however, he has yet to reveal a concrete proposal.

Much is at stake in Social Security reform. The program is:

* An entrenched fixture in the political expectations and household budget planning of Americans.

* Uncle Sam's helping hand to the disabled and the unfortunate.

* A big token of support to senior citizens after decades of toil and taxes.

Consequently, proposals to change Social Security spur defiance among even one of society's most accommodating groups.

"I'm ready to go out and fight," retiree Marian Brown, a Suitland, Md. widow, says from a wheelchair. She lives on a monthly Social Security check of $550.

The high stakes and shrewd tactics have so far stayed the president's hand, say some political analysts.

Mr. Clinton quickly seized the initiative, and implicitly labeled the Republicans as entitlement busters, by asserting early in 1998 that any budget surplus must go toward refinancing Social Security rather than a tax break.

That advantage quieted Republicans and gave him time to wait for a bipartisan consensus on reform, analysts say.

Moreover, Clinton knows the Democratic Party, because it was the party of the founders of Social Security under President Franklin Roosevelt, has more credibility than budget-conscious Republicans when proposing entitlement reform.

That advantage gives Clinton time, analysts say.

"It's like [President] Nixon on [renewing relations with mainland] China," says James Smith, senior economist with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

"On China, a conservative had to make the first move," he says, "but on Social Security, the Republicans have been burned so often they have to let the Democrats take the first step."

But while Clinton has some breathing room to produce a reform plan for Social Security, he doesn't have a lot. And the threat of removal from office has speeded up the clock.

Even if he remains in office, his initiative must come well before the beginning of the posturing and platform building that precedes campaigning for the presidential election in 2000.

That gives him about six months.

There's no time to waste. Debate over reforming a core economic and political program like Social Security is complex and protracted. And so far, many lawmakers have avoided presenting voters with what many consider to be the only options to prevent insolvency: cutting benefits, raising taxes, or accepting some degree of stock market risk.

"The debate so far has obscured a simple fact. Reform will come only by raising taxes or cutting benefits, there's no way around it," says Daniel Bachman, an economist at WEFA Inc. in Philadelphia.

Proposed reforms differ widely. But analysts and lawmakers from both parties agree a final compromise will probably tap some of the budget surplus, raise taxes, cut benefits, and encourage taxpayers to divert some Social Security money into stocks through individual retirement accounts.

But as inevitable as such reforms seem, they won't come easily.

Analysts see at least two political dangers. First, lawmakers might polarize along ideological or party lines.

Or, they might take the easy way out and avoid posing necessary sacrifices to voters.

As with reform of the IRS and other bedrock programs, legislators might just trumpet politically acceptable changes, showing no more moxie than milquetoast.

"Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that it will be a fix that's not too thoughtful and that we stumble into, rather than an imaginative redesign that sets us up for the 21st century," says Mr. Smith.

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