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What’s the Plan? On Social Security, There Is None

With all the chatter recently about overhauling Social Security, you’d think that the House and Senate were already in a conference committee for a bill to create private accounts under the age-old government retirement system. [IMGCAP(1)]

But if you think that, you’re way, way off. The key players in this debate don’t even have a bill yet — and they don’t plan on rolling one out anytime soon.

As Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a recent

interview, the timing of actually crafting a Social Security bill is “all dependent on the success of the president at the grass-roots [level] — having a dialogue with the American people, educating them about the problem and convincing them that there is a problem.”

Translation: It could be a while before the public gets specifics about what the president and Congressional Republicans want to do with Social Security.

Grassley even held out the possibility that the educational campaign President Bush has recently embarked on could take so long that Congress’ Social Security debate could drag on into next year. “It doesn’t matter if it’s this year or next year. We’re going to have one opportunity in 10 years, and we better take advantage of it,” he said.

Still, he thinks he’ll have a “better idea in a month” about when to wade into the weeds of the GOP legislative proposal, which will most likely be a massive rewrite of the Social Security system aimed at either saving it from imminent insolvency or destroying it, depending on who you talk to.

“The outline of where we’re going to end up is out there, but we’ve got to have this discussion,” explained a fellow Finance Committee member, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Indeed, one facet of the legislation is for sure: Allowing people to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts will be part of the deal.

Lott said the best time to tackle Social Security on the floor of the House and Senate would be this fall, after the annual spending bills have been passed. But, like Grassley, Lott held out the possibility that legislative action could be pushed into next year. That, of course, would be an election year, when controversial legislation is often shoved to the back burner.

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) announced last week that he’ll be holding a series of broadly themed Social Security hearings in March. So, “there will be forward movement,” in the words of his spokesman.

One House GOP leadership aide said that legislative decisions will likely be made in June or July, though that could slip, depending on how well the president’s barnstorming goes.

The aide also dispelled the notion that House Republicans have essentially agreed to let the Senate take the lead on writing a Social Security bill.

“We’re not going to sit on the sidelines and let the Senate go first,” the aide said. Instead, House leaders will be coming up with their own bill after “soliciting ideas as well as encouraging discussions,” the aide said.

With the timing of the legislative battle uncertain, the absence of a detailed White House plan doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to those in Congress who have been tasked with carrying water for the president. In fact, Bush benefits from keeping the specifics of his plan under wraps for a while, Grassley said.

“Anything the president puts out there, all the effort’s going to be directed toward that, and people are only going to understand that. They’re not going to understand why you need to do something about Social Security,” Grassley said. “If the president convinces the people … then I can write a bill.”

Indeed, Grassley doesn’t want the president to even send up a legislative proposal.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’ll be better off if he didn’t,” Grassley said.

So, as one Senate aide put it, “it’s almost like there’s a calculated effort on both sides to not have a plan. … It’s a defensive move designed to keep the other side from picking apart each other’s plans.”

Indeed, Democrats seem just as reticent as Republicans to get into specifics too soon. Heck, they’re refusing to say whether they’ll even offer an alternative bill.

Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said his party does have a plan to “preserve and strengthen” Social Security.

“We’re in the process of putting those pieces together,” Dorgan said. But when pressed, Dorgan acknowledged that Democrats were not actually putting those pieces into legislation, but rather studying the issue via a task force on retirement security.

It’s all part of Democrats’ strategy to wait and see what the president does before sticking their necks out with a plan.

“If [the president] wants private accounts — which I think is a bad idea, because they actually make the problem worse, not better — it’s up to him to give us a plan. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time here,” said Finance ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Still, House and Senate Democrats are holding 235 “town hall” meetings in the coming weeks to tell Americans that Bush’s plan, vague as it is, would ruin their beloved entitlement program. It seems they’re mindful of Grassley’s quip on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week: “People who define the issue determine the outcome.”

Of course, to try to define the issue before Republicans do, Democrats have essentially had to invent the awful details of a nonexistent Republican plan.

When Senate Democrats unveiled a Web-based Social Security calculator on Thursday — a device that purports to show how much money people would lose with private accounts — they also had to post a one-page explanation of the assumptions they made about the “Bush Privatization Plan.”

It includes such doozies as: “Since he has not made a specific proposal, these estimates assume that benefits are ‘price indexed,’ a proposal made in Plan 2 of President Bush’s Social Security Commission.”

Amid the fog of rhetoric on both sides of the aisle, a few intrepid lawmakers have actually introduced bills to create private accounts under Social Security.

Some of them, like those offered by Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were doing it before it was cool to do so, before the president offered to give Congressional Republicans political cover.

But many of those ideas have already been shot down. Take, for instance, Graham’s plan to help pay for the trillions of dollars to transition to private accounts by taxing a higher-income threshold. But Republican House leaders flatly rejected that as a tax increase, despite a glimmer of support from the White House for that approach.

So the chances of the public and other lawmakers actually getting to see a detailed plan may be improving, if slowly.

Indeed, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who plans to introduce his own bill next week, is another one of those breaking with his colleagues simply because he’s willing to be explicit.

“I will have a very, very specific plan,” Hagel said. “I think we need to have some specific proposals on the table.”

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