WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Bennett, the chief deputy majority whip and one of the wisest Republican heads in Washington, has quietly entered the Social Security maelstrom with a thoughtful compromise that puts his party at a crossroads. The GOP faces this choice: pass a bill that is a pallid version of the original proposal, or concede defeat and fight out the battle in the 2006 campaign.
Bennett's plan would attack the unmistakable Social Security funding deficit by cutting benefits, graduated to hit hardest in upper income brackets. There would be no tax increase. President Bush's proposed voluntary personal accounts as part of Social Security would be written into law but would not go into effect for five years, when George W. Bush would no longer be president.
Hardly a month ago, it was inconceivable that Bush would accept such a watered-down proposal. But now, it is probably the most that can be hoped for. Whether the Republicans declare victory, such a proposal will shape partisan politics into the future.
Bob Bennett is in his 13th year as a senator from Utah, and his experience on Capitol Hill as a staffer for his father, Sen. Wallace Bennett, goes back four decades. A successful independent businessman, Bennett has the rare ability to understand and articulate complicated issues. As chairman of the Joint Economic Committee last year, he thoroughly studied the Social Security puzzle.
Typically, Bennett has been working behind the scenes to solve that puzzle and went public only when details began to leak out. He starts from the premise that Social Security will not be in trouble some time in the distant future but in 2008, when the first "baby boomers" retire and initiate a worsening strain on the system. Bennett's plan realizes two facts of life in dealing with this developing crisis.
First, the plan by Sen. Lindsey Graham, raising the present $90,000 cap on annual income subject to the payroll tax financing Social Security, is a dead letter with conservatives. Some 30 congressmen who belong to the Republican Study Committee, invited to Dick Cheney's home last week, told the vice president they could not tolerate any tax increase.