Social Security Is Issue, But Solution Is Elusive

By: Richard W. Stevenson,
The New York Times, November 10, 1998

Eager to show voters that Washington is not completely mired in partisanship, leaders of both parties have been proclaiming their enthusiasm in the aftermath of the elections to tackle the big issues, Social Security foremost among them. "Above all, now we must address the challenge to save Social Security for the 21st century," President Clinton said. Representative Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, who will succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker, said much the same thing in setting out his priorities.

Oh, that it were so easy.

After nearly a year of debate over the best way to insure that Social Security can handle the impending retirement of the vast baby boom generation, there are no signs of emerging consensus. The situation is further complicated by political factors, from the turmoil within the Republican leadership to the Presidential aspirations of some of the main players. And hanging over the process is the stomach-churning volatility in the stock market, which complicates efforts to push for a Wall Street solution to Social Security's problems.

Still, both parties are pressing ahead. Mr. Clinton is planning a White House conference on the subject next month. Representative Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 19. Mr. Livingston has promised that pragmatism will prevail over ideology in the House, suggesting a willingness to bridge the gulf between the conservative vision of Social Security as an individualized system for saving and investment and the insistence by liberals that it remain a guaranteed, collective shield against poverty among the elderly. Mr. Clinton has stressed that any solution will have to be bipartisan.

Beyond that, there is little to pull them together. Republican leaders, convinced that the Democrats will otherwise find a way to burn them on the issue, insist that Mr. Clinton, who has remained resolutely vague about his thinking, go first by presenting a detailed proposal.

"He can't holler down to the Congress and say, 'Hey, we need to do something about Social Security, good luck,' " said Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader. But the White House has resisted setting out a position, saying that to do so would polarize the debate from the beginning.

Republicans generally want to allow individuals to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in stocks and bonds, an approach also favored by a few leading Democrats, including Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Most Democrats oppose any shift from a guaranteed retirement benefit, but are willing to consider having, the Government itself seek a higher return for Social Security by investing its trust funds in the financial markets.

Should he move toward private investment accounts, Mr. Clinton would run into opposition from many of the same liberal constituencies, especially organized labor, that helped revive his party's fortunes in last week's election. Democrats may be less likely to compromise if they believe they have a shot at regaining control of the House in 2000. Vice President Al Gore will no doubt be wary of any plan that would alienate core Democratic groups and give his most likely rival for his party's 2000 Presidential nomination, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, an opportunity to lock in support from the party's left. On the other hand, Mr. Gore also has to be -concernedabout a challenge in 2000 from Mr. Kerrey.

For Republicans, the main question is how hard to push for a big tax cut to reassert their conservative agenda - and whether Democrats would respond by accusing them of squandering the surplus and endangering the financial security of coming generations of retirees. Yet there are still optimists in both parties, including Representative Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, the point man on the issue for House Democrats. In blocking Republican efforts to cut taxes this year and demanding that the surplus be set aside until Social Security is fixed. Mr. Pomeroy said Mr. Clinton "reminded Republicans that this is a powerful issue, that it works to the Democrats' advantage, and the way to get it off the table is to come up with a bipartisan fix." "Their right-wing base is clamoring for a tax cut," Mr. Pomeroy said of the Republicans, "but doing it in the absence of Social Security reform is a high-risj business, so before they get to the tax cut they have to take care of Social Security. For Democrats, we have a Democrat in the White House and we have a budget surplus, so the time to do this is now"


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