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House OKs Social Security Reform Panel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over White House opposition, the House Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation creating a bipartisan commission to propose long-term reforms to keep Social Security solvent well into the 21st century.

The bill, however, sets up a potential collision with an ongoing “national dialogue” led by President Clinton.

“While we support finding new ways to enhance this period of public education on bipartisan reform, we do have concerns that this commission might impede, not facilitate, that process,” said Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council at the White House.

While some influential seniors’ groups back both approaches, the AFL-CIO, a strong Democratic constituency, opposes the commission’s creation, suggesting that it is a stalking horse for Republicans who want to permit workers to invest some or all of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.

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But Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, defended his bill to establish a commission. Without one, he said during floor debate, “I am absolutely certain that politicians will once again start fighting over Social Security--as has always been the case in the past--and we won’t be able to get the job done.”

The bill passed, 413 to 8, with nearly all Democrats voting for it, although many had made speeches urging that the growing budget surplus be set aside to help bolster the Social Security trust fund. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Many Republicans believe that a commission will provide them political cover on an issue that they fear the Democrats will exploit in the upcoming campaign--as they did in 1996 with Medicare reform.

Asked whether Republicans are leery about the political pitfalls of taking on Social Security reform, Rep. John T. Dolittle (R-Rocklin) said: “Very much so.” Democrats “are complete demagogues on the issue,” he added.

Such GOP trepidations are not groundless. A new national poll this week showed that Americans, by a margin of 52% to 29%, trust Clinton more than the Republicans on Social Security reform.

By creating a commission, the Republicans also can claim at least part of the mantle of leadership on the issue.

The “National Dialogue on Social Security Act” would create an eight-member commission to devise long-range reforms to maintain the program’s ability to continue paying full benefits to Americans now working and to generations as-yet unborn.

As the program’s trustees pointed out Tuesday, Social Security will come under a crushing financial squeeze when the 76 million baby boomers--Americans born in the years 1946 through 1965--begin reaching retirement age. The number of people 65 and older, now 34 million, or 13% of the population, is projected to reach 70 million, or 20% of all Americans, by 2030.

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The commission would report its findings to the White House and Congress by Feb. 1.

President Clinton has called for a round of national discussions and debates throughout the year, a process that would culminate in a White House conference in December. He also has vowed to meet with congressional leaders in January to hammer out a rescue plan.

The GOP legislation allows Clinton to appoint two of the commission members, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott four; and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt two. Recommendations would have to be supported by at least six members.

Times staff writers Robert Rosenblatt and Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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