White House Resists G.O.P. On Way to Save Social Security

By: Richard W. Stevenson
The New York Times, April 2, 1998

Washington, April 1- The White House and Republican leaders disagreed today on how to reach consensus on a solution to Social Security's looming financial problems, with the Clinton Administration rejecting a Republican proposal to establish a bipartisan commission.

The Republican proposal, introduced today in the House, would set up an eight-member panel -- four members appointed by the Republican leadership in Congress, two by the Democratic leadership and two by President Clinton -- to develop a Social Security proposal acceptable to at least six of the members. The committee would have a deadline of February 1999.

To solve Social Security's problems, said Representative Bill Archer, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, "politicians in Washington must begin work now and we must put partisanship aside."

But Franklin D. Raines, the White House budget director, said the Administration favored allowing a free-wheeling public debate for most of the rest of this year. The White House, he said in a letter to Mr. Archer, would then start working with Congress in December on a bipartisan package of changes to insure that Social Security will be able to weather the retirement of the baby boom generation, beginning in large numbers in a decade.

"The Administration believes that such an open and inclusive structure, without a specific commission, provides the best opportunity for us to elevate the debate this year before beginning bipartisan negotiations next year," Mr. Raines said. "In particular, such a flexible structure seems a more auspicious way of building the public understanding necessary for ultimately achieving reform than does legislating a commission."

White House officials said they feared that a commission would be unable to finish its work quickly enough to begin hashing out a final package late this year and sending it to Congress for passage early next year.

But the Administration's position also reflected its discomfort with the prospect of granting significant control over the debate to the Republican majority in Congress. The White House has not taken a public position on the best prescription for Social Security, and some Administration officials are concerned about the speed and enthusiasm with which many Republicans are embracing proposals that would establish privately managed investment accounts as a part of the Social Security system.

In a meeting with House Republicans today, Speaker Newt Gingrich said members of Congress should use the next two weeks to explain to constituents the problems facing Social Security and gently suggest possible solutions.

"Take it home, share it with your editorial boards, share it with your citizens," Mr. Gingrich told his fellow Republicans. "Don't try to sell them on anything. Just say to them: 'What do you think?' "

But Mr. Gingrich also restated his support for using the projected Federal budget surpluses -- $670 billion over the next five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office -- to pay for private retirement accounts for every worker. The accounts, he said, would help ease the strain on Social Security and would insure that the surpluses were not spent by politicians in Washington.

Democrats have dismissed the idea as a tax cut by another name, and one that would not address the underlying financial problems facing the Social Security system. Many Republicans are wary of the idea as well because they would like to use the surplus for other tax cuts.


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