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Private accounts not negotiable, Democrats say

WASHINGTON—Top Democrats said Monday that they won't negotiate any remedy for Social Security's projected funding shortfall until President Bush and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee first take private retirement accounts off the table.

The proposed accounts are a centerpiece of Bush's second-term agenda and the heart of what he calls an "ownership society," in which Americans take a more active role in saving for retirement.

Democrats say the accounts amount to privatizing Social Security because they would be carved out of payroll taxes that are now earmarked for Social Security. The president would let younger workers give up some promised Social Security benefits for the chance to earn potentially higher returns from stocks and bonds.

"As soon as the president publicly takes privatization off the table, then we are in a position to start" negotiating, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters Monday. He later said he also wanted finance committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to publicly disavow private accounts.

Private accounts "means the end of Social Security," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Social Security subcommittee in the House of Representatives.

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security legislation, on Tuesday begins to hear four detailed plans for shoring up Social Security's finances.

The four proposals come from non-elected individuals or think tanks with no political price to pay should Congress remain deadlocked on the issue. Three proposals include private accounts, which Democrats refuse to discuss. The fourth proposal involves tax increases, which Bush has ruled out.

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

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