Senate panel opens effort on overhaul

But first step underscores failure so far to persuade Democrats to back plan

April 27, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The drive to overhaul Social Security shifted yesterday from town halls to Capitol Hill, as Senate Republicans launched an effort to write legislation that would revamp the retirement program.

But their first step - holding a committee hearing to consider various ways to shore up Social Security - only underscored the fact that President Bush has so far failed to persuade any Democratic lawmakers to back his approach.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, vowed to press ahead to write a bill and said his first effort would include a version of Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts, an idea almost universally opposed by Democrats.

The enormousness of the political challenge facing Grassley was apparent as soon as he opened yesterday's committee hearing on Social Security restructuring. The first Democrat to speak, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, declared that he and other Senate Democrats would shun Grassley's efforts to write a bipartisan bill until Bush publicly drops the idea of individual accounts.

"We've hit a wall," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, acknowledged.

But Graham, who has spoken with Democrats in an attempt to reach a compromise, said he was convinced that they were open to Social Security restructuring proposals "so long as they didn't blow a hole in the deficit and so long as they didn't destroy the purpose of Social Security." He said he thought Democrats were more likely to participate in drafting an overhaul bill if forced to vote on a measure portrayed as critical to shoring up the retirement system. But he also said Bush would need to play a more active role pressuring Congress to act.

"No Democrat is going to negotiate until the president takes his lumps," he said.

Grassley said he would work with Democrats as well as Republicans on his committee to try to forge a bill that would guarantee Social Security's solvency for the indefinite future. Grassley said he hoped such a bill would include private accounts, but he did not rule out the possibility that it would not.

The Democrats have no alternative legislation of their own - a fact that has earned them Grassley's public scorn for shooting at Bush's individual accounts without proposing anything in their place.

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