WASHINGTON—House leaders said Wednesday that they can't take up a Social Security bill before this fall, dealing a serious blow to any hope that Congress might enact an overhaul of the nation's retirement system this year.
The Senate is no closer to action than the House of Representatives.
That means the legislation, if it's ever taken up, is likely to be pushed into 2006, where election-year politics could make it virtually impossible to tackle the type of controversial changes that President Bush envisions.
Revamping the New Deal-era retirement system is Bush's top domestic priority, but Democrats have put up a unified front against Bush's plan to replace Social Security's guaranteed government benefit with individual investment accounts. In addition, Americans haven't rallied behind Bush's vision, as polls all year have shown public support for his private accounts falling the more people learned about them.
Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the third-ranking member of the House Republican leadership, said Wednesday that "it is likely" that a Social Security bill would be ready for a House vote "by the end of the year, maybe as early as September."
But any House bill would have to be reconciled with any measure passed by the Senate. The House is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Sept. 30, giving it virtually no time to negotiate a final piece of legislation with the Senate.
The Senate, meanwhile, faces its own obstacles. After months of fruitless back-room negotiations, Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has scheduled another meeting of Republican committee members for Thursday in hopes of finding party consensus on a Social Security bill. But he conceded Wednesday that "the lack of bipartisanship gives a lot of Republicans cold feet."
What's more, the Senate in September will likely be pre-occupied with confirmation hearings to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
There's a chance those hearings could occur in August, but senators of both parties have said they would prefer to hold them in September. That also would sidetrack Grassley, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, by taking his attention away from Social Security.
"If we don't get it (the confirmation hearing) in August, then it's a problem in September," Grassley said Tuesday. "I mean it's quite a problem."
The House delay was due in part to a busy agenda before the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that handles Social Security legislation. Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., initially hoped to draft a bill in June, then July, but instead has been focused on getting a Central American free-trade agreement through the House, which also is preoccupied by highway and energy legislation.
House leaders also recognized the lack of political momentum behind any Social Security bill and were counting on extra time to build support for a specific proposal. So far none has gained much traction.
"I think it means we will be here until November," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., one of the main authors of the Social Security proposal before the House.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., author of the Senate version of Ryan's proposal, said he was counting on a strong determination by the House leadership and the president to get legislation done, but he conceded that the prospects grow dimmer with time.
"The longer they put it off, the harder it is going to be for us to act before the end of the year," he said. "Realistically, the longer we wait to take action, the less chance of getting it done."
Bush, who barnstormed across the country promoting his Social Security plan for months earlier this year, hasn't mentioned it in more than two weeks.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected suggestions Wednesday that the president was backing off. "It's a high priority for the president, and we continue to work with Congress and urge Congress to move forward to strengthen Social Security," he said.
But with a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Bush will have to focus his time and political muscle over the next two months on winning confirmation for his nominee.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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