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Opposing top players in Social Security debate agree to disagree on solution

WASHINGTON—Even when two leaders on opposite sides of the Social Security debate agree on what the basic problem is, accept the same set of facts and share the same values and goals for change, finding agreement on the solution proves elusive.

That was the conclusion of an experiment in search of common ground on Social Security that Knight Ridder conducted. Two key players in the debate were invited to Knight Ridder's Washington bureau to have a conversation, on the record, about the problems facing Social Security and what might be done about them.

On one side was William D. Novelli, the chief executive of AARP, the giant seniors' lobby, which is waging a massive campaign to defeat President Bush's proposal to finance new private investment accounts with diverted Social Security revenues.

On the other side was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sponsor of legislation that would create precisely those kinds of accounts. He's an energetic member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that will write whatever legislation, if any, ultimately addresses the problem.

The invitation to them grew out of a conversation the two men had at an official dinner in Washington on Feb. 9. During the course of a social evening, they engaged in a civil, constructive dialogue over what to do about Social Security. Their conversation was the opposite of stereotypical Washington political talk—no shouting, no extreme positions—and was instead a reasoned search for common ground.

Knight Ridder invited Novelli and Ryan to a continuation of their conversation, this time recorded and on the record. Washington Editor Clark Hoyt moderated the encounter.

On many points, Novelli and Ryan agreed. They agreed from the outset that Social Security provides retirees an essential financial safety net that must be maintained. Both agreed that the system faces serious financial troubles that should be dealt with sooner rather than later. And both agreed that any solution mustn't put retirees' security more at risk than the current system does.

But when it came to specifics, agreement was harder to find.

Essentially, Ryan insisted that any legislative fix include private investment accounts funded by diverting revenues that now flow into Social Security's trust fund. Novelli insisted that was unacceptable because it would cost too much, might expose retirees to unacceptable financial risk and was unnecessary to fix the system.

An edited transcript of their dialogue follows:

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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