Washington The White House budget chief warned top congressional Republicans Friday that the Social Security surplus is on track to be tapped for other programs this year, a politically perilous event that President Bush and lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly promised to avoid.
The news prompted an alarmed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to discuss options for avoiding that scenario with Bush at an abruptly called White House meeting.
Republicans, particularly in the House where lawmakers face re-election next year, are nervous that Democrats would use the turn of events against them. Democrats have blamed the problem on the price tag of the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut Bush pushed through Congress.
Budget director Mitchell Daniels told House GOP leaders that the bite out of Social Security could be about $9 billion, said several Republicans speaking on condition of anonymity. One aide said Daniels told them it could be as much as $15 billion.
While that would have no effect on the program's solvency and would still leave this year's surplus the second biggest ever, it could violate a pledge that most politicians are adamant about obeying. Many of them worry that Americans believe the giant pension program for the elderly and disabled would be weakened if even small portions of its annual surplus are appropriated.
Bush and the leaders made no decisions, 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.
White House officials would not comment on the situation. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., while declining to say how Democrats would fix the problem, was quick to drop it on the White House's lap.
"It's refreshing to see someone in the administration owning up to the problem, even though the president hasn't," said spokesman Douglas Hattaway.