WASHINGTON -- Shirley S. Chater's future as Social Security commissioner ran into a potentially serious roadblock yesterday as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee blistered her for a lack of leadership and said he would hold up her nomination to a six-year term.
Frustrated by Ms. Chater's refusal at her confirmation hearing to offer a prescription for preventing the Social Security system from going broke, Sen. Bob Packwood told Ms. Chater: "You're just ducking it. You don't want to answer these questions. . . . We need some leadership from you."
Later, Mr. Packwood said he would hold up the nomination "until we get some answers." Asked whether Ms. Chater had shown the ability to lead the vast agency into the 21st century, Mr. Packwood, the Oregon Republican who heads the committee, replied: "She did not demonstrate it today." He added, "This is a position that doesn't require a clerk -- it requires a leader."
The Social Security Administration, based in Woodlawn, touches the lives of most Americans. Employing 65,000 people, including more than 14,000 in the Baltimore area, it sends monthly retirement or disability payments to 48 million people and collects payroll taxes from 141 million workers and their employers.
Members of Congress have complained that successive administrations have provided inadequate operating budgets for Social Security. Lawmakers also have been frustrated by what they see as the failure of commissioners to level with them about how much money is needed to run the organization.
Trying to give the agency more visibility and independence, Congress decided last year to separate Social Security from the Department of Health and Human Services at the end of March, with the commissioner reporting to the president.
The legislation specified a six-year term for the commissioner, an effort to give him or her the freedom to speak on budget and policy.
President Clinton nominated Ms. Chater last month to the six-year term. If not confirmed by March 31, she would remain as head of the agency, but in an "acting" status.
Yesterday, Mr. Packwood demanded that Ms. Chater recommend a solution for one of the most explosive problems facing Congress -- the projection that the Social Security retirement trust will go broke early in the next century.
As baby boomers begin to retire in the next decade, experts say, Social Security will go bankrupt unless benefits are cut -- by raising the retirement age, reducing benefits or cost-of-living increases, or reducing retirement checks for wealthier recipients -- or taxes are raised.
Solving the problem will take action by Congress, but neither its Republican leadership nor the Clinton administration has put forward a prescription. Nevertheless, Mr. Packwood demanded a solution from Ms. Chater, a Clinton appointee who headed a women's college in Texas before becoming Social Security commissioner 16 months ago.
After she read an opening statement that outlined recent administrative changes at the agency and promised "a nationwide discussion" about the future of Social Security, to be followed by recommendations, Mr. Packwood commented acidly, "That is a disappointing statement."
Seemingly stunned, Ms. Chater asked him to repeat the comment.
"You say there's no problem," Mr. Packwood said. "Gasoline's already been poured. The match hasn't been struck, and you talk about 'we have to have a conversation with the public.' What do you suggest? What's going to be your leadership? Not how many computers you're going to have. What do you suggest?"
Repeatedly, Mr. Packwood demanded suggestions and repeatedly Ms. Chater refused, saying that her staff was drawing up a list of options that she would be prepared to discuss once the Social Security Administration becomes independent.
"You know the subject backwards and forwards," the senator told her. "You are an independent agency now or soon will be. You don't have to look to the administration. You are free to fTC speak on your own."
Ms. Chater later suggested that she was not free to offer the suggestions Mr. Packwood wanted.
At one point, exasperated that Ms. Chater would not say whether Social Security should be "on or off the table" in talks about a balanced budget, Mr. Packwood asked: "What's the matter with you? Who are you afraid of?
". . . We want your leadership. We want your ideas . . . and all we get is palaver. You know the answers. . . . You know the issues, and you are sitting here and stonewalling us deliberately."
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the committee's ranking Democrat, joined in the verbal roughing-up of Ms. Chater, though most of his criticism was aimed at the Clinton administration for what he called its "almost indifference" to Social Security. And, Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, bemoaned the failure of Congress to deal with Social Security and other entitlements.
No other senators attended the hearing, and it was unclear whether Ms. Chater is in danger of losing her bid for a six-year term. Asked whether her nomination was in peril, she responded firmly, "No."
A Senate aide who refused to be quoted by name saw the grilling by Mr. Packwood as a warning that Ms. Chater must be more forthcoming in discussing policy. But, he added, "typically, questions of leadership are not enough" to defeat a nomination. "That usually takes a scandal."