updated 5/24/2005 1:37:14 PM ET 2005-05-24T17:37:14

Democrats won’t begin negotiating an overhaul of Social Security as long as President Bush insists on private investment accounts because they don’t want to get caught in a “bait and switch,” says the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

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The committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, urged Democrats on Monday to negotiate, even if they just say “no” to a plan with personal accounts.

“You know, they ought to be sitting down at the table, talking to us about solvency, and if they want, it gives them an opportunity ... to say, ‘You know, we’ll agree to do this much, but if you’re going to have personal accounts in there, we aren’t going to do it,”’ said Grassley of Iowa. His committee takes up the issue on Wednesday.

Democrats have expressed doubts about legislation that includes investment accounts, and want that aspect of the legislation dropped before they get involved in discussions.

Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the panel, said he would negotiate with Grassley only if the president publicly disavows the accounts, which Bush has conceded will not improve the program’s solvency.

Fears of ‘bait-and-switch’
“Otherwise it’s bait-and-switch because they’ve got the majority,” Baucus said. “We go to conference (committee) and they say, ‘Oh no we’re just going to talk solvency,’ and lo and behold, they’re in. We’re not going to engage in bait-and-switch.”

The committee hearing will, for a second time, focus on the federal retirement program’s long-term financial challenges. In the House, the panel’s counterpart — the Ways and Means Committee — had three hearings in a week and two more scheduled for this week — suggesting a more rapid pace toward producing legislation.

“I just hope that by talking about solvency enough, we’re able to get Congress to moving on Social Security,” Grassley said. He said he and Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who heads the Ways and Means Committee, will continue on separate tracks until they get to a House-Senate conference committee. That committee would work to resolve any differences in the competing versions of the legislation.

The president wants to pay for the accounts by diverting a portion of the payroll taxes now used to pay benefit checks not only for retirees, but the disabled and spouses and children of workers.

Democrats say Bush and the Republicans are trying to destroy the program and shift it from one providing a guaranteed government benefit to one in which workers manage their own benefits subject to the fluctuations of the stock market.

Republican opposes private accounts
One Republican on Grassley’s committee, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has said she cannot support the proposal, making it unlikely the panel can produce a bill that includes language on investment accounts.

In an interview, Grassley thanked Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., for offering a Social Security proposal last week, even though it called for a stiff 6-percent tax hike of the nature already ruled out by Bush.

“I think just the fact that he felt it was good to introduce a bill is very significant,” Grassley said. “It’s the first movement on any Democrat’s part.”

Grassley also remained optimistic about progress in the Senate.

“I guess every meeting we have is progress,” Grassley said, “because of the tradition we have in the Senate, that you just have to have long meetings to get any place.”

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