Quest to be white knight of Social Security

Eyeing 2000, Republicans try to alter view that fixing the system is aDemocratic issue.

With Social Security looming as a major election issue, the Republican-led Congress and White House are engaged in a vigorous jousting match to see who will appear as the white knight of America's future retirees.

Yet this unlikely competition - spurred by an odd alignment of political constellations - has still not led either side to take the bold action needed to ensure the solvency of Social Security, advocates say.

"Nobody has really touched Social Security yet," says Bill Brannigan, a spokesman for Americans Discuss Social Security, a nonpartisan group based in Washington.

Congressional Republicans last week unveiled a broad plan to "lock away every penny" of the Social Security Trust Fund surpluses for the nation's elderly. More GOP legislative counterproposals to President Clinton's plan for shoring up the federal pension system are expected this week.

Seeking the high ground on what traditionally has been perceived by voters as a Democratic issue, Republican leaders are claiming the mantle of the true saviors of Social Security - "a sacred trust between the people and the federal government," in the words of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois.

"Where the president's budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office, spends 40 percent of the Social Security surplus, we will save it all," asserted Senate budget committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico.

GOP's move

The 10-year GOP budget plan, announced by Senator Domenici last week, would create a "safe-deposit box" to guarantee that Social Security Trust Fund surpluses, estimated to total $137 billion in 2000, can only be spent for Social Security.

Mr. Clinton's plan, outlined in his State of the Union address in January, envisions devoting 62 percent of projected budget surpluses to the Social Security system during the next 15 years.

The tone of the current debate over Social Security stands in marked contrast to last year's tone. Before impeachment and before the GOP was rocked by the unexpected loss of House seats in the November midterm elections, many Republicans were pushing for tax cuts regardless of the president's call to "save Social Security first."

Why the shift?

For years, the Social Security system founded by New Deal Democrats has been a politically sensitive subject for Republicans. Devastating electoral setbacks accompanied GOP proposals in the 1980s to scale back benefits, making Social Security known as the "third rail" of American politics: "You touch it, you die."

Today, Republican leaders realize that they must go one better than Democrats in protecting the nation's retirement system if they are to succeed in fending off charges that they are trying to undermine it.

GOP fears that any lack of generosity on Social Security could lead to another scorching in the 2000 election may be well founded. Interest in the issue is already high among the public, which historically has given Democrats higher marks for handling Social Security.

More Americans in recent months have identified fixing Social Security as the government's top priority - giving it more importance than education or health care - according to polls conducted for Americans Discuss Social Security (ADSS).

Today, nearly one-quarter of the public thinks political leaders should work hardest to solve Social Security problems, compared with just 16 percent a year ago. Almost half of Americans say Social Security should be one of the government's top two concerns, a poll conducted for ADSS by Princeton Survey Research Associates showed last month.

"The numbers are up," says Mr. Brannigan.

Other factors

Meanwhile, there are other political factors that could encourage progress on Social Security.

For example, two key political players on the issue - Clinton and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R) of Texas - will not be running for re-election in 2000 and may feel freer to make bold proposals.

At the same time, political leaders may realize that with a Democratic administration in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, both parties now have the opportunity to put their stamp on Social Security reform. A bipartisan agreement on shoring up Social Security, analysts say, would be less likely to come under attack by future governments.

So far, however, political leaders from both parties have proved extremely cautious in addressing substance of Social Security.

Specifically, they say neither Clinton nor the Republicans have adequately tackled steps to ensure the life of the retirement program beyond 2032, when it is projected to run short on money. Such steps would require either raising payroll taxes that fund the system, cutting benefits, or fundamentally restructuring the system - most likely through the introduction of private accounts.

"Neither side has sat down and said, 'OK, this is what we do to remove the inherent financial imbalance that exists in Social Security now,' " says Brannigan.

Clinton's plan has already come under attack by three heads of federal agencies as being flawed or simply inadequate.

The public, too, realizes that using the budget surplus for Social Security is only a first step - with 75 percent saying benefit cuts, tax increases, and other changes will be necessary, polls show.

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