Social Security stymies Hill GOP

By Amy Fagan

Washington Times

House Republicans, usually well-organized and focused, seem befuddled on a Social Security strategy, disagreeing on everything from when to act to what provisions to include in a final bill.

    Both House and Senate leaders say they would not move ahead with Social Security legislation this month, as previously planned. While Senate Republicans have consistently had problems agreeing to a bill, House prospects had seemed more promising.

    But House Republicans can't agree on whether their bill should include provisions to fix Social Security's long-term solvency problems, such as raising the retirement age or changing the benefits structure. 

    And they don't all agree on whether to create personal retirement accounts using the system's surplus, when to push ahead with a vote and whether to act at all if the Senate doesn't.

    House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, is crafting the broad retirement package and still may add provisions to fix Social Security solvency woes. But House leaders want an accounts-only bill, said one Republican member who asked for anonymity.

    "There's a big fight between leadership and Thomas," the member said.

    Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, said the party is split, with many members sharing his view that solvency provisions should be included in a final bill.

    "I think there are a lot of people who are skeptical" of supporting an accounts-only proposal, he said.

    House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said he's "confident that we would have a majority" on the accounts proposal, but could not say whether the votes would be there if other provisions were added.

    On timing, there are mixed messages. Mr. Thomas told the Associated Press his panel probably won't act until the fall, since it's so bogged down with the Central American Free Trade Agreement in July.

    But another House Republican, who asked for anonymity, said nervous conservatives asked Mr. Thomas in a meeting last week if House leaders are running away from acting on Social Security, and Mr. Thomas told them his panel would indeed act on something in the next two weeks, so that members can go home and build support before a fall House vote.

    And while many Republicans have already thrown their support behind the new idea of creating Social Security personal accounts using the system's surplus, not all are on board yet, and the delay in action could be to make sure the votes are there for that as well.

    "I just think they're trying to build support," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and supporter of the new accounts idea. "You never want to bring something to the floor that you haven't fully educated people about."

    "There are a lot of members who would like to vote no" on that proposal, said yet another anonymous House Republican member.

    Opinions also differ over whether it is wise to postpone action. 

   Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, said waiting until the fall could give a Social Security vote the momentum it needs, but Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican, said it would be best for the House to act before August, since "right now the American people are aware of" the issue.

    Mr. Kingston also said many House Republicans still are hesitant about doing anything if the Senate doesn't -- a fear that has been consistently expressed over the past six months.

    "They're saying, 'We'll fire our guns, but we don't want to fire them if this is not a real fight,' " he said.