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Social Security to Move ‘Fast’

Republicans in Congress and the White House say they have nearly finished the first stage of their push to overhaul the Social Security system and will soon begin crafting a bill that could pass both chambers by the end of July.

Indeed, Bush administration officials and senior Republican Congressional staffers said they also are gearing up for the president to begin outlining more details on how he would like to structure his plan to provide private investment accounts under Social Security.

“It’s all going to be moving very fast,” said one Senate Republican leadership aide of the push for Social Security in the next few months.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leaders clarified last week that they will not abandon their plan to include private investment accounts as part of any Social Security measure that comes before the chamber this year. A Thursday Associated Press report had indicated that Senate Republican leaders were toying with taking investment accounts off the table to get Democrats to begin negotiating.

“Personal accounts are an essential part of any reform,” said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “Without personal accounts, all you have left is benefit cuts.”

President Bush’s campaign to convince the public to support his Social Security overhaul has taken slightly longer than anticipated, considering that the original plan was to spend the first quarter of this year — January through March — on the “problem-definition and senior reassurance” campaign, the Senate Republican leadership aide said. But Bush has only recently passed the midway point on his “60 Stops in 60 Days” Social Security tour.

By May, though, the president is likely to begin the second phase of his effort, sending Congressional leaders more specific details of his vision of how to create private investment accounts under Social Security, how he would like to pay for any transition costs and how to keep the program solvent beyond 2041, said a senior Bush administration official.

Indeed, the original timeline for action set aside the second quarter of the year — April through June — for talking about “the solution” to projections that Social Security will be unable to pay promised benefits by mid-century, the Senate GOP leadership aide said.

During the second and third quarters, Congress is also supposed to begin crafting legislation to have a bill passed by both chambers before Members leave for their annual August recess, the aide said. However, Republican leaders would be satisfied if Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has at least unveiled a bill by the end of July, the aide added.

Still, the timeline assumes that the “final floor fight” on a Social Security overhaul would occur during the fall and winter, in time to have it signed by the president by the end of the year, the aide added.

“It’s very doable that we get a bill done this year,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who serves as Chief Deputy Majority Whip and sits on the Ways and Means Committee.

Indeed, the Senate Republican leadership aide noted that the White House has been frank with Congressional Republican leaders in saying that Bush has planned “no exit strategy” even if public opinion polls continue to show the president’s proposal sinking rapidly.

Regardless of whether Bush has planned an exit strategy, Members charged with crafting the bill, such as Grassley, have sometimes made conflicting statements about whether they believe a bill can be passed by both chambers this year.

Even so, Grassley has pledged to take up some sort of Social Security overhaul bill — one that includes the private investment account option — this summer, most likely in late June or July, said Jill Gerber, his spokeswoman.

Once a Senate bill is in place, the House is expected to begin moving on its own version of the bill. Cantor said that Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) will hold hearings in advance of House action and that the House will try to “work in tandem” with the Senate to get the work done. Still, the threat of a Democratic-led Senate filibuster has led House GOP leaders to move somewhat more cautiously.

“We’ll look to see what happens in the Senate, but that doesn’t mean we won’t move forward on our own,” Cantor said.

Grassley has only held one hearing on Social Security’s impending insolvency thus far, and he doesn’t plan to hold another one until the end of April, according to Gerber.

Additionally, Grassley may be one of the few in Congress who does not want to hear more specifics from the president regarding his plan for Social Security. Grassley has repeatedly said he would rather the president give him the breathing room to craft a bipartisan solution to Social Security’s woes.

Still, Grassley will move forward whether the president begins getting into the weeds or not.

“Action here is not contingent on more specifics from the White House,” Gerber said.

Cantor echoed that sentiment, but indicated he welcomes the president’s input. “Any time the president engages on the issue, I think it’s helpful,” he said.

As to whether Senate Republican leaders have expressed a willingness to abandon the president’s push for personal accounts, Republican aides acknowledged Friday that Senate leadership talks last week included the notion of trying to get Democrats to negotiate aspects of Social Security outside of private investment accounts. However, even if they convinced Democrats to begin negotiations, the topic of private accounts would never be off the table, aides said.

“If Republicans were to come up with a way to bring Democrats to the table on a bill that doesn’t necessarily have personal retirement accounts, we wouldn’t reject that because at least Democrats would be talking,” said the Senate Republican leadership aide.

However, the aide noted that any such bill would eventually have to incorporate private accounts before being brought to the Senate floor.

“Any permanent solution that passes should include personal retirement accounts,” the aide said.

Democrats have steadfastly refused to begin talks on Social Security until Republicans stop trying to convince them and the American people to embrace personal accounts, and Democrats say they are not fooled by the Republican’s apparent plan to get them to the negotiating table only to add private investment accounts to the debate at a later date.

“In most bait-and-switch schemes, the intended target takes the bait before the switch is made,” said Rebecca Kirszner, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “Democrats have not taken the bait and certainly won’t fall for a switch to privatized accounts, with deep benefit cuts and massive debt.”

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