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Key GOP Lawmakers Balk at President's Social Security Plan

Rep. Bill Thomas
   Rep. Bill Thomas
Bush on Jan. 20 used part of his second inaugural address to plug his vision of an "ownership society" but some key Republican lawmakers are already expressing wariness about his plans for Social Security reform.

In a speech devoted mostly to connecting the spread of liberty around the world to the United States' security, Bush also stressed the "dignity and security of economic independence" and said that Social Security and other government programs should be reformed "to serve the needs of our time."

"To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools, and build an ownership society," Bush said. "We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance - preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."

Bush hopes to convince Congress to allow workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts, something he says would increase individual wealth and freedom but that opponents - especially Democrats - say would undermine Social Security's funding and decrease the financial security of many retired Americans.

While many Republicans lawmakers support Bush's plan, some have balked at such a major overhaul of the program, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of California and Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery of Louisiana, whose panels have significant influence over Social Security legislation.

Thomas said that the president's Social Security proposal has no chance of passage in Congress and, in comments echoed by McCrery, that officials should investigate other ways to reform the program, including possibly replacing the payroll tax with another unspecified funding mechanism.

"Every breath that's spent on discussing [Bush's] plan is an attempt to lay a political ground war for the next election," Thomas said. "Save those breaths. Talk about what we need to do now that the president's plan is on the table so that we can address, in a legislative way, a solution on a bill the president could sign. That would be, I think, a positive gesture. And I'm looking forward to those discussions and not a continual beating of what will soon be a dead horse of their proposal."

Some opponents of personal accounts have welcomed such comments by senior Republicans, including Brookings Institution economist Peter Orszag, who said that they are "opening up a much more auspicious conversation than the one the president is on." Orszag, a former Clinton administration official, is a long-time proponent of forcing newly-hired state and local employees to participate in Social Security.

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