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Senate leader, in shift, urges swift action on Social Security

Vows to advance key legislation

WASHINGTON -- Senate majority leader Bill Frist said yesterday that Congress must confront Social Security's problems this year, dialing back comments earlier in the week that action might have to wait.

''We need to do it this year. Not the next year," Frist said yesterday on the Senate floor. ''We are working towards this goal."

Two days ago, Frist noted intense Democratic opposition and suggested he might not be able to move a bill to the Senate floor this year, as Bush has pushed for. ''I want to be realistic," Frist said on Tuesday.

Other Republicans have expressed skepticism about the Bush plan, and polls have indicated public support falling.

That has left opponents feeling optimistic about how the debate is shaping up, a month after Bush laid out his ideas in his State of the Union address.

Yesterday, Frist said he would work to move the legislation forward.

''This president and this Congress are facing this challenge, and the challenge is to fix Social Security for seniors, for near retirees, and for that next generation," he said. ''And we need to do it this year."

He added that it will be ''much easier" to take action now than it will be later, as Social Security's financial problems grow.

His comments come as Bush tries to navigate a challenging political landscape.

On Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee suggested focusing on the long-term solvency of Social Security rather than Bush's divisive proposal for personal accounts.

A new national poll indicated support for the president's Social Security plan falling.

And Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said the president might be willing to jettison its centerpiece -- private investment accounts paid for with Social Security payroll taxes. Alternative ''add-on" accounts that rely on other sources of funding are also on the table for debate, Snow said.

Some of these proposals would pay for the accounts with general tax revenue; others would require workers to contribute more of their pay.

''I think right now, the more ideas, the better. We like to see ideas," Snow said.

Late yesterday, Senate Democrats drafted a letter to President Bush saying they are looking to reach a ''bipartisan agreement" on reforming Social Security -- but only if Bush abandons his call for private accounts paid for by money that would otherwise go toward Social Security.

The Democrats, led by minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, cited comments made by Snow.

''Given the conflicting and ambiguous reports on such a critical issue, we urge you to publicly and unambiguously announce that you reject privatized accounts funded with Social Security dollars," the letter stated. ''Democrats in the Congress believe this approach is unacceptable, and it appears that most Americans agree with us."

The White House did not immediately respond to the letter, but such a capitulation would seem unlikely for the Bush administration since the ''carve-out" of private accounts has been the centerpiece of the president's proposal.

Earlier in the day, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the president's commitment to a plan that allows younger workers to invest their Social Security accounts in the stock market.

''The president believes that as part of comprehensive reform, we need to include personal accounts, so that younger Americans can have the option of realizing a rate of return that is closer to what is being promised," McClellan said.

Bush did get a repeat boost from the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, who prodded Congress to curtail the cost of government health and retirement benefits promised to baby boomers ''sooner rather than later."

Bush has called for congressional action on his proposal this year. His administration is launching a two-month blitz, with Bush and other top officials visiting 29 states to campaign for the plan. He plans visits to New Jersey and Indiana today.

Without changes, the Social Security trustees project that by 2042, the program will not have enough to pay promised benefits fully.

Congressional Democrats are virtually unanimous in their opposition to Bush's plans, arguing the president wants to inject market risk into a program that has lifted millions of seniors out of poverty. Some Republicans are skittish about tackling the issue, as well, fearing the political repercussions of making such fundamental changes in a program that benefits 52 million Americans.

Some Republicans also object to the policy. ''The government should not invest Social Security funds in the stock market," said Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, who faced a tough reelection fight last year. ''Social Security has always been the safety net."

A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated support for such accounts tumbling. The survey said the idea has 46 percent backing, down from 54 percent in December and 58 percent in September.

Bush envisions no change for retirees or workers age 55 and older. Younger Americans could divert a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts, to be invested in a limited selection of mutual funds of varying risk. In exchange, the guaranteed government benefit would be cut for these workers when they retire. All younger workers are likely to see benefit cuts as well, to help bring the program into solvency.

Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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