Social Security crossroads

Posted: Mar 10, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 Second, Democrats have definitively ruled out any form of personal accounts. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, by nature a dealmaker, is under intense pressure from his caucus not even to discuss the Bush proposal. With Sen. John Kerry accusing Reid of being too soft, the new leader rejected any negotiation. Democrats, reeling from a succession of election defeats, want to humiliate Bush at the start of his second term. In the Senate, Paul Begala (my co-host on CNN's "Crossfire") is described as threatening a jihad against any Democrat who dares negotiate.

 Bennett tackles the coming Social Security shortfall by making an overdue change -- long advocated by the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- of pegging Social Security to prices instead of wages. That requires a cut in future benefits. But Bennett would "blend" that cut -- deeper for the rich than the poor. This constitutes a non-partisan compromise. Significantly, Bennett does not raise taxes.

 The Bennett plan tries to sidestep the furor over personal accounts by establishing an individual savings account outside of the Social Security system. Many Democrats are proposing similar plans, and nobody really thinks they would impel workers to save appreciably more than they do today. However, Bennett would write into law, effective five years from now, the option for wage earners to commit a portion of their payroll taxes to future accounts.

 That probably will not assuage the wrath of Democrats who vow that any of their senators who support personal accounts, even Joe Lieberman, face primary election challenges. But it may be a reasonable enough alternative to chip away at a few brave Democrats.

 Will the president buy it? The guess on Capitol Hill is that it will look better than nothing, in the eyes of the White House. But there is a temptation among many Republicans to match Democratic intransigence and go to the public in the mid-term election. The Republicans stand at the crossroads, about to make a decision that will affect much more than Social Security.