WASHINGTON -- Working Americans who collect Social Security retirement checks would be able to earn up to $30,000 a year without losing any of their benefits under a bill that began moving through the House yesterday.
Senior citizens groups welcomed the legislation, which -- if enacted -- would mean higher retirement checks for nearly 1 million beneficiaries ages 65 to 69. Retirees who are over 70 now are allowed to collect full benefits regardless of their earnings.
Under current law, retirees ages 65 to 69 can earn $11,520 next year without seeing their retirement check reduced -- an amount that is scheduled to rise to $14,400 in 2002. For every $3 they earn above that figure, they lose $1 from their retirement check.
The bill approved yesterday by the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security would raise the limit to $14,000 next year and to $30,000 in 2002.
To pay most of the $7 billion cost of the measure, the panel agreed to drop all drug addicts and alcoholics from the disability rolls and to require the Social Security Administration to purge more disability beneficiaries from the rolls who no longer qualify.
Horace B. Deets, executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons, supported the measure, saying in a letter that it "will enable many moderate- and middle-income beneficiaries who work out of necessity to improve their overall economic situation."
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said the bill "will benefit the seniors of this nation who need and want to work," while The Seniors Coalition said the "earnings limit has for too long served as a disincentive to working for seniors."
The Clinton administration offered no position, but a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, Phil Gambino, said it would support "a modest increase in the earnings limit."
The measure is part of the House Republicans' "Contract with America," their 1994 campaign manifesto. The bill is tentatively set for a vote by the full House next Wednesday, said Rep. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who heads the subcommittee.
The House has approved similar legislation twice this year, but the Senate has not brought it to the floor for a vote, in part out of objections to various plans to pay for the measure.
A proposal by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to raise the earnings limit to $30,000 foundered this month because it would have financed the change with cuts in other programs. While Majority Leader Bob Dole has expressed support for increasing the earnings limit, it was not clear yesterday whether the Senate will take up the latest bill once it clears the House.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican who heads the Finance Committee, will bring the bill before the committee "if he agrees with the way it is being done," said Ginny Koops, the committee spokeswoman.
The bill's provision on drug addicts and alcoholics goes further than welfare bills passed by both the House and Senate this year. The bill approved yesterday would drop 120,000 addicts and alcoholics from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) rolls and kick 60,000 off the Social Security trust fund rolls, producing a savings of $1.9 billion over seven years.