A U.S. Senate Republican said Tuesday President Bush had privately encouraged him to introduce Social Security legislation that omits Bush’s signature proposal for private retirement accounts in a bid to break the legislative logjam.
Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah said Bush’s preference was to have private accounts included in Social Security legislation. But the senator quoted the president as telling him: “I like your bill.”
“The president is on top of this and is fully aware of what we are doing and is encouraging me to go forward,” Bennett told reporters after a closed-door session with Bush and other Senate Republicans at the White House.
Bennett’s comments suggested that Bush might be willing — for now — to move legislation that does not include private accounts in order to overcome Senate opposition to overhauling the Social Security system.
Bush proposed letting workers divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into individual accounts that would be invested in stocks and bonds.
Bennett said private accounts would be proposed in separate legislation that would be considered later.
The White House said Bush was not abandoning his private-account plan and urged Democrats to negotiate.
Polls put Bush’s approval ratings at the lowest levels of his presidency, in part because of skepticism over his private-account plan, his top legislative priority. Bush has been shifting his focus increasingly to other issues, including the war in Iraq, the economy and Medicare.
Bennett said he hoped to introduce his Social Security bill as early as next week, and asserted that some Democrats had privately expressed an interest in supporting it.
“We have a lot of hope that we can use this bill to break the logjam and move forward on Social Security,” Bennett said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said private accounts were a nonstarter. “Until the president and the Republican leadership agree that their misguided attempt to privatize Social Security is over…, Democrats will continue to refuse to enter negotiations,” he said.
‘NOTHING HAS CHANGED’
White House spokesman Scott McClellan played down Bush’s comments to Bennett.
“Nothing has changed in terms of the president’s belief that personal accounts are an important part of any solution,” McClellan said.
“I think we need to deal with it all at once (private accounts and Social Security’s solvency), and that’s still our strategy and our goal,” White House communications director Nicolle Devenish told CNN.
Another Senate Republican, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, plans to introduce his own alternative Social Security legislation that would avoid politically unpopular benefit cuts and tax increases but retain a private-account provision.
Congressional aides said House Republicans may unveil a plan on Wednesday similar to DeMint’s.
The White House has shown increasing flexibility on its Social Security plan in a bid to attract support in Congress. The private-accounts plan faces stiff opposition from Democrats, and some Republicans are reluctant to support it for fear of a backlash in the 2006 elections.
“I’ve decided that the Democrats have made it clear they will not back personal accounts. And in response to the president’s position that ‘let’s try to get something done,’ I will be proposing a bill that does not include personal accounts,” Bennett said. “The president is aware of that and he indicated that I should go forward and do that.”
After the White House comment, Bennett said on CNN he did not want to “over stress the president’s kind words as being a signal that he was more than willing to jettison personal accounts, because he never said that.”
But Bennett said: “Let’s see how many supporters we can get for a bill without personal accounts, and then we’ll have the discussion about personal accounts later.”
Although private accounts are not included, Bennett’s legislation incorporates a proposal — backed by Bush — to slow the growth of benefits for middle- and upper-income workers by linking them to prices rather than wages.