House Republican leaders promised yesterday to hold a vote as early as this summer on adding personal accounts to Social Security, but said they might do it without any effort to stave off the system's insolvency.
The leaders also said they will act on legislation creating personal investment accounts without concern for when the Senate would act. Until now, GOP House leaders have been reluctant to take the lead on Social Security because of a concern about a possible backlash in the midterm races next year -- especially if the bill dies in the Senate. President Bush has vigorously campaigned for personal accounts, but his proposal has attracted only tepid public support.
The government currently collects more in payroll taxes than is needed for Social Security benefits. The House measure slated for a vote this year would take that surplus and apportion it into personal accounts for workers younger than 55, unless they chose not to participate.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said a vote is planned "possibly as early as July," although it could move into September. "I would see us doing it this year, and in the near future," he said. "I've been pretty hesitant about us going too far, too fast without the Senate and without any help from Democrats. This is not too far, too fast, but it's still a significant step in the right direction."
Six months into the debate, however, House Republicans remain fractured about how to deal with the issue. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said last week that his staff has been working on a measure that deals with Social Security solvency, and that it will be ready for unveiling within weeks.
Polls show that the party is also struggling with how to sell any change to Social Security -- especially to those at or near retirement age, even though they would not be affected by the plans being discussed. At a conference meeting, House Republicans were given a one-page sheet of pointers about discussing Social Security over the Fourth of July recess, and were urged to talk about values, not "numbers and money." The sheet is titled "Winning Social Security Reform -- Messages for Voters 55+."
The leaders acknowledged that the measure they are considering would make the deficit worse, and do nothing to deal with the president's rationale for bringing up the issue in the first place: projections that the system will run out of money for scheduled benefits when the baby boomers retire.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he sees the measure "as a first step -- we need to solve this first step."
Republicans sounded discouraged about attracting meaningful Democratic support. "There are many different plans on how we tackle this problem, but one thing remains certain: The Democrats aren't going to help us," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), chairwoman of House Republican Conference. "We have to do this on our own. We could probably get a lot farther down this road if we had some bipartisan assistance. That being said, the fact is that we don't."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his party would not sign on, calling privatization "the poison pill to progress."