WASHINGTON -- A $7.3 billion election-year sweetener for Social Security pensioners is being hustled through the House despite complaints that it would bust the budget.
With bipartisan backing, the proposal would nearly double -- from $10,200 to $20,000 a year -- the amount pensioners would be allowed to earn every year without losing part of their Social Security benefits.
House staffers said only about 4 percent of all recipients would benefit from the higher earnings limit. Half of them, one staffer said, earn $60,000 a year or more.
The bill appears almost certain to pass the House, perhaps today. Prospects for Senate passage appear nearly as bright. The White House has not yet indicated what it would do with the proposal.
Phased in over a five-year period through 1997, the bill would also provide larger monthly benefits to certain widows over 80 years old and continued benefits to some disabled pensioners who otherwise would lose them if they married.
House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, said the proposal breaks a six-month deadlock that has held up passage of improvements in the Older Americans Act.
Opponents complained that the measure violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1990 budget agreement that requires new spending to be offset either by higher taxes or program cuts.
"This is a $7.3 billion addition to the deficit," said the Budget Committee chairman, Leon E. Panetta, a California Democrat. "Without reflecting on the merits of it . . . -- and some strong arguments can be made for the bill -- it ought to be paid for, the same as every other bill." At this very moment, we are working on a separate rescission bill to cut $5.7 billion from this year's [$400 billion] deficit. This Social Security bill is exactly the wrong signal to send about the seriousness of our effort."
A Rostenkowski aide said he was pushing this bill to prevent adoption of a far more expensive proposal backed by a number of House Republicans and by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
The McCain bill would remove all earnings limits on Social Security pensioners -- at an estimated cost of $31 billion a year.