WASHINGTON -- Democrats say it is up to President Bush to suggest a solution now that his budget chief has told lawmakers part of this year's Social Security surplus may have to be diverted to pay for other programs.
White House budget director Mitchell Daniels delivered the news privately Friday to House Republican leaders. It would put the administration and Congress on track to violate an oft-stated pledge to leave Social Security funds untouched.
It prompted an alarmed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to discuss options for avoiding that scenario at an abruptly called meeting with Bush.
Republicans, especially in the House where members face re-election next year, are nervous that Democrats will use the turn of events against them.
Democrats have blamed the problem on the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut Bush pushed through Congress.
"It's refreshing to see someone in the administration owning up to the problem, even though the president hasn't," said Douglas Hattaway, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Hattaway declined to say how Democrats would handle the matter, saying, "We're anxious to see what the administration would propose to address this very serious problem."
Daniels told the GOP leaders that a $9 billion bite could be taken out of Social Security's surpluses this year, said several Republicans, speaking on condition of anonymity. One said the top figure could be $15 billion.
That would have no effect on the program's solvency and would still leave this year's surplus the second biggest ever, at nearly $150 billion. Still, it would violate a pledge that most politicians are adamant about obeying because it is symbolic of their claims to be prudent overseers of the taxpayers' money.
White House aides declined to comment publicly about the matter.
At their meeting, Bush and the leaders made no decisions about what to do, aides said. Among the options Hastert offered were across-the-board spending cuts that would be triggered automatically should Social Security's surpluses be eroded, and trimming Bush's request for higher defense spending, they said.
The president, emerging from the session, did not mention the Social Security situation. Instead, he focused on the day's other troublesome economic news: that the nation's unemployment rate had risen to 4.9 percent last month, a 0.4 point increase that was the largest in six years.
"I want the American people to know we're deeply concerned about the unemployment rates, and we intend to do something about it," Bush said.
Just last month, the White House budget office said this year's projected $157 billion Social Security surplus would not be used to finance other federal programs, and that the overall federal surplus would be $158 billion.
But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $9 billion in Social Security funds would be needed.
The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, giving the administration little time to find the savings that would be needed to avoid dipping into Social Security.
Many House Republicans favor immediate, automatic spending cuts in next year's budget by whatever amount this year's Social Security surpluses are drained.
But the idea received a lukewarm reception from many White House officials and GOP senators. They worry it would make the already tight budget for next year even tighter, and would cut so many programs that even many Republicans might balk.
In addition, there was some concern that if Bush embraced a broad spending reduction, it could let Democrats argue that the tax cut was causing problems.
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