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House GOP Dumps Social Security Reform

Social Security
By Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 24, 1999; Page A2

House Republican leaders have decided not to push on their own for a major overhaul of Social Security before next year's elections, virtually dooming prospects for congressional action on the issue in the 106th Congress.

The decision came in the wake of an internal party poll showing that a congressional battle over Social Security could hurt Republicans in the 2000 elections, when they will face a tough fight from Democrats for control of the House.

Responding to reports of the GOP leaders' decision, President Clinton yesterday criticized it and asked the Republicans to reconsider. The Republicans said they would do so only if Clinton takes the initiative to reach a compromise.

"That's the only way you can reform Social Security: that's with the president's leadership," said Michele Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).

But Clinton contended in his statement that Republican leaders, just a week after adopting a budget promising a big tax cut, were "sending a message that Congress is either unable or unwilling to face up to the challenge of strengthening Social Security." This is "unacceptable," he added.

"I have proposed concrete steps to bolster Social Security and offered time and again to work with the Congress in a bipartisan way to make the tough choices needed to secure the trust fund over the long term," Clinton said. "Republican leaders have yet to consider my proposals or advance any of their own."

The Republican leadership's decision was first reported yesterday by The New York Times. The decision came in a series of private meetings over the past two weeks when all three top party leaders, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), told colleagues that they could not support any major reform proposal at this time.

The decision was made just as GOP leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee were working out final details of a plan to revamp the Social Security system to include private investment accounts. Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) and the panel's Social Security subcommittee chairman, E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), were planning to unveil their plan next week.

Archer said in a statement yesterday that he and Shaw intend to go ahead with their plan and will announce details "very soon." They said they wanted to work with Clinton on a bipartisan solution.

But Republican leaders intend to focus instead on a so-called "lock-box" proposal to protect Social Security surpluses from being used for other purposes, according to GOP aides. This proposal does not involve reforms in the system, however, and has big problems of its own: Democrats blocked it in the Senate, arguing that it could complicate government efforts to deal with economic downturns and meet its financial obligations, including payment of Social Security checks. The White House has also threatened a veto.

In his State of the Union address three months ago, Clinton outlined a plan to put aside most of the federal budget surplus to keep Social Security solvent after baby boomers begin to retire in a few years and invest some of the money in the stock market to enhance the system's solvency. Republicans criticized him for not proposing more far-reaching reforms and began preparing plans of their own, most of them focusing on privatization.

But, even after both parties made "saving Social Security" a mantra for this Congress, prospects for agreement on actual legislation to reform either Social Security or Medicare have steadily declined as lawmakers faced the politically painful steps that would have to be taken, such as increasing taxes or cutting benefits.

The final jolt came in a poll taken three weeks ago for House Republicans that showed that, while Americans support the idea of reforming Social Security to promote solvency and endorse the lock-box approach, their support drops dramatically when they are confronted by specific elements of either Republican or Democratic proposals, according to GOP aides.

Republicans have been burned repeatedly on Social Security in the past and believe that pressing ahead without a bipartisan consensus amounts to "basically handing the Democrats an opportunity to bludgeon us on this issue," said one Republican.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said Clinton must move first, and Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth (R-Del.) believes it will take a "strong bipartisan consensus to move a reform bill," according to an aide.

At a recent meeting, about 20 Senate Republicans agreed to begin trying to work out legislation that includes private investment accounts and is likely to go ahead with it "regardless of what the House does or doesn't do," according to an aide to one of the senators.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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