A top Republican lawmaker on Social Security issues on Sunday called the retirement system’s finances a “problem” rather than a crisis, distancing himself from the crisis terminology used by the White House in seeking public support for private accounts.

“I think ‘problem’ really is what we’re dealing with,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when asked if he agreed with the assessment of President Bush and other top administration officials that the system was in “crisis.”

In a sign of trouble for Bush in the Senate, moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine questioned his proposals and strategy.

While she said she does not object to personal savings accounts “per se,” Snowe told CNN: “I’m certainly not going to support diverting $2 trillion from Social Security into creating personal savings accounts.”

A member of the Finance Committee, which will craft any Social Security legislation in the Senate, Snowe complained that the “public discussion thus far, without a specific proposal, has created and enhanced a lot of confusion and fear among seniors.”

Democrats and other critics say Bush, by warning of a crisis, is trying to scare Americans into supporting his plan to let workers shift part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts to invest in stocks and bonds.

Thomas, one of Congress’s most powerful voices on tax policy, said it would be “difficult” politically and “stupid” economically to raise the payroll tax to try to improve the system’s finances. He said consideration should be given instead to other revenue-raising options such as value-added taxes.

Thomas said upping payroll taxes or changing the retirement age “aren’t long-term, permanent solutions,” adding, “Why not look at other options?” Bush says he opposes tax increases to pay for the changes.

The Republican president has made revamping the 69-year-old Social Security system a top domestic priority, citing projections that it will run into the red in 2018 and will exhaust its trust fund by 2042 as the huge postwar “baby boom” generation retires.

On Sunday, Bush was at the Camp David presidential retreat preparing his State of the Union address, in which the Social Security overhaul is expected to figure prominently.

Opponents, including Democrats and senior citizen advocates, accuse the administration of wanting to penalize retirees to pay for a partial privatization plan that would provide Wall Street with a huge government-subsidized windfall.

They say even under pessimistic scenarios, workers and employers would still pay into the system and benefits, although reduced, would still be paid.

Thomas, a California Republican, caused a stir in Washington last week by saying Bush’s plan faces major changes in Congress and by accusing Democrats of “beating what will soon be a dead horse.”

Thomas said on Sunday: “I didn’t say it was dead on arrival. What I said was I hope we didn’t have (Democrats) attacking the president’s proposal once it’s introduced because, once it’s introduced, it becomes part of the legislative process.”

“Suggest changes or suggest substitutions,” Thomas said.

Thomas said Bush, at a recent economic forum, used the term “problem” 27 times to describe the Social Security system’s finances, rather than the word “crisis.”

But Bush said in December, “The crisis is now,” and at the forum he used the word “bankrupt” five times to raise alarms about the financial state of the system.

Other top White House officials have used the term “crisis,” or have called it a “crisis situation,” including budget director Joshua Bolten and spokesman Scott McClellan.

Thomas said, “The terms that we use need to be watched.”