Kolbe works for Dem support

With congressional leaders in both parties refusing to give ground in the debate over Social Security reform, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) has turned to three former Democratic congressmen in an effort to build support for his bipartisan reform bill.

Kolbe will host a “Coffee and Conversation” this morning in the Capitol with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) and Democratic former Reps. Tim Penny (Minn.), Charlie Stenholm (Texas) and Jim Slattery (Kan.) in the latest attempt to lure Democrats to the negotiating table.
Keri Rasmussen
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) is trying to gain Democratic support for Social Security reform.


Democratic congressional leaders have refused to consider any reform legislation that includes personal retirement accounts, the backbone of President Bush’s proposal, while Republican House leaders have shot down any suggestion that reform include an increase in the $90,000 ceiling on income subject to the tax.

With Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) quietly crafting reform bills, the pressure is on Republican leaders in both chambers to recruit Democratic supporters.

Grassley has had a hard time getting enough support to move legislation out of his own committee, while various reform bills in the House have failed to gather momentum.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have lashed out at any members who appear to be willing to negotiate. Last month, Democratic leaders criticized Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) for offering his own reform legislation, part of their ongoing effort to maintain unified opposition to Bush’s call for reform.

With both sides thoroughly dug in, the Kolbe event will showcase former Democrats in the Social Security debate. Republicans regularly have cited Penny and Stenholm’s commitment to reforming the entitlement program in their attempts to portray Democratic leaders as obstructionists.

“We hope the event [today] will rekindle interest and show that the issue is not dead,” Stenholm said. “It’s frustrating that it’s June and there is still nothing.”

Stenholm, who was the original co-sponsor of the Kolbe legislation when it was introduced in 1998, dismissed a charge often leveled by congressional Republicans that Democrats had been obstructing the overall debate by not coming forward with a proposal for reform.

“How you can blame the minority party beats me,” Stenholm said. “I don’t see how anyone can come to that conclusion.”

Stenholm said that Thomas and Grassley should be given considerable credit for hammering out their respective bills amid partisan bickering on either side of the debate.

Today’s event will be held in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol, just off the House chamber. In addition to the members, 20 to 30 volunteers from Students for Saving Social Security will also attend. Afterward, the students were expected to pass out “For Our Grandchildren” coffee mugs to congressional offices.

Boyd will not attend the meeting because of a scheduling conflict, his office said.

Kolbe’s comprehensive reform bill has not gotten a lot of attention during the six-month Social Security debate largely because it is the most complicated legislation to be introduced, with a set of changes and triggers to bring the system back into solvency.

The plan would divert between 2 and 3 percent of income subject to Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, which would be modeled after the highly popular Thrift Savings Plan, a government retirement program.

It would also raise the salary cap to cover all income under $140,000, a provision that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has said he opposes. The measure would also make changes in the benefit structure to increase the safety net for lower-income workers.

“It gets very little attention from the press,” Stenholm said of the bill he helped craft.