Parties gird for Social Security fight

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In rooms about 200 miles apart yesterday, the two political parties firmed up the battle lines for their coming clash over Social Security.

President Bush sought to rally Republicans to support his plan for overhauling Social Security during an appearance at a GOP retreat in West Virginia.


In Washington, D.C., Democrats brought a big name of their own - a Roosevelt - to a Capitol Hill hearing meant to rebut Bush's claim that Social Security is facing a crisis and to portray his proposal as a threat to the retirement program.

The dueling events underscored the bruising fight ahead as Bush prepares to step up his campaign to sell his Social Security plan - in his State of the Union speech Wednesday, followed by trips to five states that he carried in November's election but that are represented by Democratic senators.


"I look forward to talking to the country about the need to address big reforms like Social Security," Bush told about 200 House and Senate Republicans at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. He repeated his pledge to oppose any rise in Social Security taxes to shore up the system.

Bush repeated his warnings about the financial problems facing Social Security as the baby boom generation ages, and he stressed the need to act now.

The president is pushing a plan to allow younger workers to channel part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. He has argued that this would give workers an opportunity to fatten their retirement nest egg while shoring up the system's finances.

He continued yesterday to steer clear of detailing crucial aspects of the plan, such as how Social Security would make up for tax money diverted from the retirement system. Critics of his proposal say that without a payroll tax increase, benefits would have to be cut or the government's debt would skyrocket.

Some GOP lawmakers have been skittish about tinkering with the retirement system in advance of next year's congressional elections. But several Republicans who heard Bush yesterday said they were eager to take on the issue.

As the Republicans met, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt - whose administration created Social Security as part of its response to the Great Depression - joined an AARP official and a former Social Security administrator from the Clinton administration to assail Bush's proposal at a hearing called by Senate Democrats.

"Privatization threatens to bring about the collapse of the entire Social Security system," James Roosevelt Jr. said.

Kenneth Apfel, Social Security's administrator during President Bill Clinton's second term, contended that the program's funding shortfall is "relatively modest and certainly manageable without drastic changes."


The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.