Dems Split on Social Security

A Florida Democratic congressman plans to unveil next week a proposal to bolster Social Security finances, in a break with his party’s rejection of a White House push to revamp the retirement system.

The proposal by Florida U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler would raise taxes on those making more than $90,000 a year, with a goal of relieving expected financial strains on Social Security as the baby-boom generation retires, a spokeswoman said. Wexler is to unveil the plan on Monday at a luncheon in his district.

The move amounts to a break with Democratic strategy. The party has remained mostly unified in its refusal to take up President Bush’s offer to negotiate on changes to Social Security. Democrats want Bush to first abandon his drive to establish private retirement accounts within the Social Security program, and the party’s leadership has shown no signs of wavering.

But Wexler’s spokeswoman, Lale Mamaux, said the congressman was responding to the interests of his district’s many retirees. “We have been looking into this for a couple of months,” Mamaux said. “A lot of our constituents are very concerned about this issue.”

White House spokesman Trent Duffy called Wexler’s proposal a “step forward,” in that he was offering a way to tackle the financing difficulties facing the 70-year-old retirement program, but said the White House wanted to study it.

Wexler’s bill does not have the backing of party leadership. “There are a lot of individual Democratic members who have ideas. That’s not the Democratic plan,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California.

Wexler does not sit on the committee that will write Social Security legislation.


Wexler’s approach differs sharply from Bush’s plan for private investment accounts and curbs on the growth in benefits for middle- and upper-income Americans.

The 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax is split evenly between workers and their employers and is levied on all income up to $90,000. Wexler’s plan would tax workers and their employers 3 percent each on wages above $90,000.

The plan would ensure the Social Security system’s long-term solvency, Mamaux said, citing conversations Wexler had with the Congressional Budget Office.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has also proposed raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, an idea Bush has not ruled out.

Graham became the subject of ads by the conservative group, the Club for Growth, attacking the idea of lifting the cap.

Wexler’s bill would not include any type of investment accounts and Mamaux said he opposes that idea as well as any curbs on benefits.

Most Republicans strongly oppose tax increases as a way to deal with the retirement system’s funding problems.

Wexler’s bill would also put in place so-called “pay-go” rules requiring that all new tax cuts or spending increases be paid for in other areas of the budget.

Wexler will unveil the plan before an audience to include groups opposed to Bush’s plan for private accounts, such as the AFL-CIO labor union and the AARP lobby for older Americans.

While Wexler is the first to offer a solely Democratic version of Social Security legislation, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd, also of Florida, has joined up with Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican of Arizona to put forth a bill that would include private accounts.