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Republicans press Social Security issue


WASHINGTON - With renewed enthusiasm, Republicans from President Bush on down pressed their case for changes to the Social Security system yesterday, hoping to jump-start a debate that has grown moribund in the face of nearly unanimous Democratic opposition.

As Bush talked about progressive indexing and compound interest with actor Ben Stein at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Republican senators plugged new legislation to take surplus Social Security funds and parcel them up into individual accounts.

Four House Republicans presented a similar measure Wednesday.

Democrats have blasted any plan that includes private accounts, and continued to do so yesterday, calling the new ideas the same plan in slightly different dress - and said it would force the government to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Republicans hope the proposals will pressure opponents to bring their own plans to the table.

"It's a reinvigoration," said Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. "I think it also helps Republicans' credibility - we can say, 'Look, we're throwing out ideas.'"

Bush pushed the same message during his appearance at Blair, sharing the stage with Stein - an actor who was a speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon and a Blair graduate - and three others, including a recent college graduate, an insurance planner from Reisterstown and a college student who works with an organization that promotes Social Security reform.

"I think it's time for the leadership in the Democrat Party to start laying out ideas," Bush told the town hall-style meeting. "You've got a good idea, step up with it - I'm more than willing to listen. What I'm not going to listen to is this partisan bickering in Washington, D.C."

Democrats, however, remained firm in their call for Bush to abandon the idea of private accounts, which have dropped in popularity even as the president travels the country promoting them. They say they would be happy to begin negotiating a way to ensure the long-term financial solvency of Social Security, but only once private accounts have been taken out of the mix.

They criticize the most recent proposals as doing nothing to shore up the program's finances. With a growing number of retirees and fewer workers paying into the system, and without adjustments, Social Security will eventually need to pay out more than it's taking in.

The new proposals would stop using the current surplus to pay for other government programs, and instead divvy it up into individual accounts, initially in Treasury bonds. But locking up the surplus would mean the government would then have to borrow an equivalent amount of money to pay for the programs.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said he and other Democrats support the idea of no longer spending the surplus. But fixing Social Security permanently requires added measures, he said.

"The problem with that proposal is, once again, it does nothing to extend the strength of Social Security, the solvency of Social Security," said Cardin, a Democrat from the Baltimore area. "That seems like a shell game to me."

After Bush's appearance in Silver Spring, Rep. Chris Van Hollen joined a group of activists who had gathered to counter the president's message. Van Hollen, whose district includes the high school, said Democrats are ready to talk about Social Security - on their terms.

"We're not going to do it in a way that gambles with people's future," Van Hollen said. "I hope the president will abandon his fixation with the privatization part of the scheme. ... I think private accounts have been the main impediment."

Congress is taking a weeklong break for the Independence Day holiday, so lawmakers will have a chance very soon to find out how the new proposals play at home.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said he doubts the additional ideas will change people's minds. Americans are smart enough to know that Social Security should be tweaked, not radically changed, he said.

"I don't think they will" support it, Sarbanes said. "It's a gimmick."

But the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who has been struggling to write a bipartisan bill, said he welcomes the ideas - largely because there's been so little movement on the issue so far.

"I haven't discouraged a single idea, for that reason," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. "The more people who have got ideas, the better, and then it's still a very heavy lift, you know."

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