WASHINGTON — House Democrats turned a hearing on Social Security into a forum for fresh criticism of President Bush on Thursday, repeatedly accusing him of seeking to privatize the program and cut benefits for million of retirees.
"The level of ignorance is pretty deep here," protested Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La. "I'm beginning to think it's on purpose."
But his complaint did nothing to stem the Democratic assault. "You don't like the term. I'm sorry. It's privatization," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.
The partisanship erupted at the first in a series of House Ways and Means Committee hearings that majority Republicans say will lead to legislation.
The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, told reporters afterward that he intended to write a bill that goes beyond the issue of Social Security solvency. It also will consider pensions, private investments such as IRAs or 401K retirement plans and other retirement security concerns.
Specifically, Thomas, R-Calif., noted an interest in measures to help low-income widows and women who spend part of their working lives at home raising children.
"I do think we need to look at how much the society has changed and how we need to change the structure" since Congress made the last major changes in Social Security in 1983, he said earlier in a formal opening statement.
Bush wants Congress to enact legislation that would place Social Security on a permanently stable financial foundation. To do so, he has spoken favorably of an approach that would leave many middle-income and higher-income retirees of the future with lower benefits than they are currently promised.
At the same time, Bush wants to give younger workers the chance to put a portion of their payroll taxes into a personal account. Those who do would receive an even lower future benefit, on the theory that their investment earnings would make up the difference.
Public opinion polls show little enthusiasm for the accounts. Also, congressional Democrats are almost unanimously opposed to the accounts. Democrats insist that Bush abandon the idea before they will sit down for bipartisan negotiations.
The House committee summoned eight witnesses for its hearing. Democrats soon argued that the deck had been stacked against them.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., asked the witnesses to indicate by a show of hands how many support personal accounts. Six hands went in the air.
Moments later, he asked how many of the witnesses believed that Congress can "successfully pass a bill without bipartisan support." None of the eight raise a hand.
Republicans criticized Democrats liberally.
Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said President Clinton once proposed a form of personal accounts, and added, "For anybody who's serious about negotiations, who really cares about saving Social Security should come to the table," he said.
Instead, Shaw said, "the silence out there is deafening. The only plan that I see the Democrats have out there is for the president to negotiate with himself and then lose."
But Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., said Republicans control the government. "And if they can't do something about Social Security it rests entirely on their shoulders," he said.
At one point, a few committee Democrats walked down the hall for a made-for-television event designed to show that Bush's plans for Social Security would hurt middle-income people in the districts represented by Thomas and other Republicans on the committee.
Back inside the ornate committee room, the political bickering continued.
"This thing about liberal Democrats. What are they liberal about," said Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky. "They don't want to change anything" and want to "use the same old way of governing the country that have failed and continue to fail."
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, warned against an "ideological fervor behind this privatization movement."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who once worked for Clinton, noted the favorable comments Republicans had made during the day about the former chief executive. "If you can sign a card I'll pass it along," he said sarcastically.