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THE tug of war over COLAs is far from over. Cost-of-living adjustments for retirees receiving federal pensions have been politically sacrosanct for decades. But some members of the new Clinton administration, including President Clinton's budget director, Leon Panetta, and by implication the president himself, keep casting hungry eyes in the direction of Social Security pensions and other federal retirement accounts.

In its search for ways to reduce the federal budget and start paying off at least some of the national debt, the Clinton administration's attention has been drawn to COLAs for federal pensioners, who have not been assured of exemption against tampering with their annual cost-of-living adjustments, while COLAs for Social Security pensioners have, up to now, been off limits.

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The new administration can hardly approach the Social Security COLA question head-on. Mr. Clinton owes a political debt to a lot of retired voters who cast their ballots for him with faith in his pledge not to tamper with their pensions or COLAs.

Mr. Panetta is less constrained. In an Associated Press interview last week, he said: ``If you're interested in more savings, you'd have to look at the whole area of COLAs.''

But on March 3 an effort in the Senate to impose a freeze on COLAs for all federal retirees was rejected, 58-41. That proposal did not apply to Social Security pensioners.

Although Clinton rejected the idea of delaying or reducing Social Security COLAs after strong opposition was voiced by advocates for retirees, the idea of delaying or reducing COLAs appears still alive. Bouncing the COLA ball into the congressional court, Panetta said March 5: ``If Congress wants much bigger deficit reduction ... it should reconsider trimming annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other retirement benefits.''

This has the ring of a broken promise. It may seem a small thing to ask retirees to miss the annual COLA for one year. Actually, it would be a severe and unfair blow: They would suffer a reduction with no credible expectation of recouping the loss.

Clinton's past promises would seem to mitigate against that.

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