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What comes next in Social Security saga?

As Bush presses on, 'progressive indexing' may be his most drastic plan yet.

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By providing some details about how he would solve Social Security's long-term financing problem, President Bush has accomplished at least one task: He's ensured that the political battle over the big retirement program is fully joined at last.

His proposal for "progressive indexing," which would cut promised benefits for all but low-income workers, has loosed an outpouring of number-crunching and commentary in Washington. To supporters, Bush has bravely gone first and shown how to fix Social Security's problems while protecting the most vulnerable US workers. To critics, Bush's proposal is not as progressive as it seems - and might, in the end, undermine support for the entire system.

Now it's up to Congress to begin the arduous task of actually drafting legislation. And amid the welter of editorials, issue alerts, and policy reports, one thing seems clear, say some analysts - there is no easy way out. Big changes in benefits, or taxes, or the retirement age, would be necessary to bring eventual balance to this largest of government programs.

"Anyone who tells you that there is a painless way to fix Social Security isn't telling the whole truth," writes Ed Lorenzen, executive director of the think tank Centrists.Org, in a study of Bush's numbers.

Bush has long pushed for private accounts within Social Security, of course, so to some extent his ideas about the system have been a feature of debate for years. But even the White House acknowledges that private accounts wouldn't address Social Security's long-term financial problems. They would be, in essence, an accessory - one that the White House insists would make the system more attractive, but an accessory nonetheless.

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