Lawmakers Seeking Consensus On Social Security Overhaul

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Key lawmakers from both parties have held tentative talks about overhauling the Social Security system, and Congress could turn its attention to the federal retirement program as soon as this fall if a bipartisan consensus emerges, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said yesterday.

"I am hopeful. It's a tough issue," Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview, adding that he and other lawmakers are still trying to assess whether sufficient support exists to move forward.

So far, Democrats have found a willing partner in the Senate, where Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has stated his desire to work with President Obama to make changes to keep Social Security solvent. Projections show that the system, which has brought in more money than it pays out, will begin to need at least small infusions of cash from the rest of the government within the next decade without changes to the benefit structure.

Graham said yesterday that he has spoken to Hoyer and Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, about the issue and that he stands ready "as a Republican to more than meet the president in the middle."

"I know what it takes to get a solution," Graham said. "I think we can get double-digit Republican support for a reasonable compromise. But the key to this, at the end of the day, is presidential leadership."

Graham described Social Security as "a math problem" that could be easily solved if both parties were willing to work together. He sketched out a plan that would include lower benefits for wealthy Americans, a higher retirement age and additional revenues. With the stock market devastated by the recession, the traditional Republican option of diverting Social Security taxes to new private retirement accounts is, he said, "off the table."

"You can do a combination of things, give a little here and give a little there, and get it done," Graham said.

Hoyer is expected to sketch out a similar plan in a speech today to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which was established in 2007 by former Senate majority leaders Howard H. Baker Jr., a Republican, and Thomas A. Daschle, a Democrat, and former senators Robert J. Dole, a Republican, and George J. Mitchell, a Democrat. The center's goal is to promote bipartisan solutions to pressing public challenges.

According to an advance copy of the speech, Hoyer will suggest that Congress could approve "more revenues," "restrain the growth of benefits, particularly for higher-income workers," "and/or we can raise the retirement age, recognizing that our life expectancy is higher today."

"What is missing here is not ideas -- it is political will," the speech says.

House and Senate leaders have resisted the idea of naming a special commission to work on the problem, insisting that congressional committees can handle it. "Right now energy and health-care bills are the major focus," Hoyer said. But if those issues are finished by the August break, he said, "we could start focusing on . . . Social Security early this fall."

Hoyer and Graham said Obama's election and the nation's fiscal crisis have presented lawmakers with a rare opportunity: at the very moment when the public is focused on the dangers associated with a rising federal debt, the nation has a president adept at communicating the need for sober action.

"At the end of the day, most Americans would embrace a balanced solution that did not require Draconian impact. They are ready to make some hard decisions for the benefit of future generations," Graham said. "If there were ever a time to do it, it's now."

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