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Saving social security: time runs short on wary Congress

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Every minute that goes by, America's social security is paying out $17,000 more than it takes in.

As the dollars drain away, the deadline for fixing the troubled system draws closer. Yet Congress sits on its hands, leery of dealing with the politically sensitive problem. Once the November elections have passed, and the President's National Commission on Social Security Reform has delivered its report, a reluctant Congress will find social security the top item on its agenda.

''Everybody's been using the National Commission for political cover,'' says a congressional aide widely respected for knowledge of social security's problems. ''But after the elections, Congress sure has got to move quickly.''

It is too early to predict what, specifically, the commission will recommend. Possible changes in the way benefits are adjusted to account for cost-of-living increases have received close attention. But one proposal that was seriously considered - adjusting benefits for the rise in wages, minus 1.5 percent - has lost favor, according to those familiar with the panel's meetings.

The panel is also weighing a gradual increase in the retirement age, bringing government workers into the system, and various alternatives for the short term, such as an extension of interfund borrowing power.

But a consensus among the members has not yet formed.

''Things seem to be on hold to a considerable degree,'' says Dr. Merton Bernstein, principal consultant to the commission.

The 15-member, bipartisan panel is scheduled to start writing its report at a three-day meeting beginning Nov. 11, according to a commission source.

There is no question the commission will produce a report by its deadline. At issue is whether the panel's final vote on the package will split along partisan lines. There are eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the commission, and congressional sources fear that a divided vote would keep Congress itself from obtaining the bipartisan amity necessary to deal with the retirement system's problems. The result might be legislation to deal with social security's short-term cash flow crunch, without any attempt to address the system's long-term problems.

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