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SSA Employees to Tell of Bush Pressure

Senate Democrats will make their first high-profile stand against President Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security on Friday, when two employees of the Social Security Administration are slated to testify that White House officials are pressuring them to help sell the plan.

The employees — whose names are being withheld by Democrats until Friday to protect their identities — will be two of at least seven witnesses who have agreed to participate in the hearing sponsored by the Democratic Policy Committee.

“We have a couple of employees of the Social Security Administration who will be testifying about the administration’s use of resources in the Social Security Administration to promote its agenda on private accounts and to promote its agenda that there is in fact a crisis,” DPC Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said in an interview. “There are pressures being brought to bear inside the Social Security Administration — improper pressures they believe to promote the administration’s plan.”

Unlike an official Congressional committee, the DPC is the policy arm of the Senate Democratic Caucus and thus has no subpoena power that can compel witnesses to testify. Republican Senators, who will be in West Virginia at a party strategy retreat, will not participate in the hearing. Dorgan said he was waiting to hear if a senior official with the Social Security Administration would appear on a panel.

Dorgan said the goal of the hearing is to counter Bush’s claim that the Social Security program is in jeopardy of becoming insolvent within 40 years.

“I hope we can put on the record some competing information and some accurate information as to whether in fact there is a crisis,” the North Dakota Democrat said. “Many of us feel the president’s language is inappropriate and not supported by the facts.”

Bush’s effort to overhaul the Social Security program is shaping up to be the most divisive domestic issue that Congress is expected to address this year. The Senate Republican leadership identified Social Security reform as its No. 1 issue when it rolled out its legislative agenda earlier this week.

Democrats complain that Bush and Congressional Republicans are overstating the program’s fiscal problems and have vowed to fight efforts to allow Americans to invest part of their Social Security earnings in personal accounts. Final legislation on the issue is unlikely to be reached in the first half of the 109th Congress, forcing it to spill over into the 2006 midterm elections.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) criticized the Democrats for holding the hearings, and charged that they are “not out there talking about any solutions.”

“All they do is keep pointing the finger at the president as if we are in election mode,” Santorum said. “The politics never ends. Here we are, January the year after the elections, and they are in full-scale political mode as if we are a month before the elections. I think people will tire of this, because I don’t think they are looking for talking points on how bad things are or how rotten the president is.”

But Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the hearings will provide Democrats with an appropriate forum to express their concerns.

“I think it is the only way to get both sides of the message out,” Durbin said.

In addition to the two Social Security Administration employees, the scheduled witnesses include James Roosevelt Jr., grandson of the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed the original Social Security law, as well as two former Clinton administration officials, Kenneth Apfel, the former commissioner of the Social Security Administration, and Brookings Institution scholar Peter Orszag, who was a White House economic adviser.

Other witnesses to appear will be Douglas Holbrook of AARP and Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute. Tanner is expected to testify in support of President Bush’s proposal.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Finance Committee and the point person for his party on the Social Security issue, said he would not be able to attend the hearing due to a prior engagement in his home state. But Baucus said he supported the Democratic leadership’s decision to hold the hearing.

“There are huge problems with the president’s plan,” he said. “It will give it a little higher profile of those problems.”

The hearing on Friday is the first of several oversight hearings that the minority plans to hold this year to investigate the administration’s actions in forming policy.

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