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Social Security vacancy has Moynihan annoyed Senator might delay HHS appointments


WASHINGTON -- After four months, the Clinton administration still hasn't nominated a Social Security commissioner, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is growing annoyed -- so annoyed that he may be holding up some administration appointments to the Health and Human Services Department.

The New York Democrat, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight of Social Security, apparently will find his patience tested a while longer: There's no commissioner nominee in sight.

A number of government officials believe Mr. Moynihan is delaying confirmation hearings on eight high-level nominees to HHS, which includes the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration. Only one HHS appointment has been approved by the Senate; among those awaiting action is Bruce Vladeck, who would head the Health Care Financing Administration, also based in Woodlawn.

An aide to Mr. Moynihan specifically denied any deliberate slowdown, saying that if there have been delays, they're "from the administration's end." Paperwork and FBI background checks originate with the administration, he said, and take time to process.

The aide conceded that it might look as if Mr. Moynihan is delaying action because he wishes to hold a confirmation hearing for a "batch" of HHS nominees -- including Social Security commissioner -- rather than separate hearings.

But Avis LaVelle, public affairs chief at HHS, said there was no news to report on the search for a candidate.

HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala thought she had found a candidate last winter in James Morrison, a Washington lobbyist and Democrat who had worked at the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget.

But the White House took its time considering Mr. Morrison, who withdrew at the end of March in frustration with what he called the "too lengthy" selection procedure.

An official of a federal workers union who is familiar with the search for a commissioner said a Michigan official was under consideration. Charles Jones, who is director of that state's disability determination service, confirmed that he is a candidate for the $115,700-a-year job.

"I have been told that my name was being considered," he said, adding that he submitted a resume about a month ago and has heard nothing since.

Meanwhile, business goes on in at Social Security's offices in Woodlawn and Baltimore, which have a total of 14,000 workers.

Louis D. Enoff, principal deputy commissioner, is acting commissioner.

Mr. Moynihan's aide, who did not want to be identified, said the senator is "disappointed" that such an important agency lacks a leader at a time when there are pressing issues involving it.

Last week, Mr. Moynihan groused publicly during a hearing he was holding on the Clinton administration's proposal to increase taxes on higher-income Social Security beneficiaries.

Individuals making at least $25,000 and couples making at least $32,000 could be taxed on as much as 85 percent of their benefits, instead of the current 50 percent limit.

"It's too bad we don't have a commissioner," Mr. Moynihan said.

Mr. Moynihan also is waiting to hear from the administration on another sensitive issue: the amount of income that workers can earn before they and their employers must pay Social Security taxes. The current threshold, set in the 1950s, is $50 in a three-month period.

The issue cost President Clinton his first candidate for attorney general. Zoe Baird did not pay Social Security taxes for two illegal immigrants hired as domestic helpers at her home.

Administration officials have spoken of the need to increase the threshold but have not put forward a proposal, said the aide.

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