House first on Social Security, Rove says

Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove told a group of college students and lobbyists yesterday that the House will move a Social Security reform bill before the Senate will.

Rove said the House would act in September and the Senate would follow soon thereafter.

He made his remarks during an afternoon rally of Students for Saving Social Security, according to a source in attendance. President Bush and Treasury Secretary John Snow also addressed the rally, which was held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Rove’s remarks contrast with a popular assumption on Capitol Hill that the Senate would act first on Social Security reform before House leaders would schedule a vote on the controversial measure.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has had difficulty building the necessary consensus on his committee to move a bill to the Senate floor.

Asked about his own timeline for Social Security reform, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) told a group of reporters at the National Press Club last week that his committee would introduce some form of retirement-security legislation “probably in early September.”

Since January, Thomas has maintained that Social Security reform is just one component of a three-part retirement-security overhaul — the other two being pension and savings reform. Thomas has not yet discussed the details of his potentially sweeping reforms, nor will leadership comment on its particulars.

“We’re working constantly with Chairman Thomas,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told The Hill yesterday after he was asked about what he knew of the Thomas plan.

Reps. Jim McCrery (R-La.), Sam Johnson (R-Texas), Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) held an afternoon press conference in support of their bill to create personal retirement accounts from the excess payroll taxes that currently feed the Social Security trust fund.

Asked about the bill shortly after his own press conference on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Hastert said, “It’s still a work in progress.”

He added that leadership would likely determine its approach to Social Security reform when Congress reconvenes in the fall.

Democratic leaders unveiled their own plan yesterday, but it did not address Social Security or its projected solvency. Instead, their bill is meant to encourage investment, especially in lower-income communities.

Rove’s comments come as House leaders scramble to pass CAFTA and in the week before both chambers wrap up their summer business in time for the monthlong August recess.

For his part, Bush joked with the 200 or so college students and lobbyists in attendance during his speech, the source said.

The president told the assembled guests that “groups like MoveOn-dot-something” have been attending congressional town-hall meetings and “raising cane” about Social Security reform. Meanwhile, Bush said, “our folks have been working” on changing the entitlement system, the source wrote in an e-mail.

In addition to the college students, lobbyists from COMPASS, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, America’s Community Bankers, 60-Plus, the Financial Services Forum and the Financial Services Roundtable were all in attendance.