If there will ever be a year when the political stars are aligned for President Bush to revamp Social Security, it may be 2005. But he still must persuade wary Republicans in Congress...

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WASHINGTON — If there will ever be a year when the political stars are aligned for President Bush to revamp Social Security, it may be 2005. But he still must persuade wary Republicans in Congress to follow his lead.

“To be crassly political, there’s nothing in it for members of Congress,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., predicting that supportive lawmakers would face television ads accusing them of gutting Social Security when they run for re-election. “It will be a very, very tough sell for the president.”

LaHood, a moderate who coasted to re-election in November, is not alone. Of the 232 Republicans who will serve in the House next year, at least 125 to 150 will need “a lot of hand-holding,” said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who said he supports Bush’s push.

These include lawmakers from districts with many elderly voters, those facing tight re-election races and those who have yet to closely examine the issue, Foley said.

Rep. Ray LaHood: “nothing in it” for congressmen.

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Many Republicans say 2005 is the ideal time to act, but they add that the window is small. The GOP controls the White House and Congress, Bush does not have to worry about running for re-election, and the next congressional campaign season isn’t until 2006 — when the political atmosphere will make action much tougher.

There is little disagreement that Social Security needs to be bolstered, because in 2018 annual benefits paid out will start exceeding revenues coming in. If it is not changed by 2042, the system will be able to afford to pay only three-fourths of the benefits now due recipients.

There’s a schism, though, among Republicans over the political wisdom of Bush’s approach to the problem.

Bush has yet to detail his plan. He is expected to propose letting workers divert some — perhaps 2 percentage points — of the 6.2 percent payroll tax they now pay on wages into private-investment accounts. Those opening such accounts may have to accept smaller regular Social Security benefits in exchange.

Conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who support Bush’s idea say revamping the financially shaky pension program could be a political coup for Republicans.

Ryan concedes it might be risky to reshape a pension program whose recipients include 32 million retired workers and dependents who don’t want their benefits cut. But he sees a huge political upside: Winning the allegiance of investment-savvy younger voters who see the program’s monthly checks as financially stodgy, and of workers in general.

“Every worker in America will have a vested interest in a growing economy,” Ryan said of those who would opt for the personal-investment accounts. “That’s better for an individualistic philosophy of government” like that of the GOP, he said.

Rep. Mark Foley: “a lot of hand-holding” needed.

GOP lawmakers and their aides have little doubt Social Security will be debated seriously next year, perhaps dominating the congressional session. But with opposition from most Democrats and AARP, the huge advocacy group for the elderly, few Republicans are willing to predict Congress will succeed in transforming the $500 billion-a-year program.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said recently that Social Security “will be a priority” next year, but he added that it’s too early to predict the outcome. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has said some Democratic support will be needed to prevail.

In part, the caution reflects a longtime Washington axiom that Social Security is such a popular program — especially with seniors, who vote heavily — that even tinkering with it is politically radioactive.

“What’s in it for them is big, big trouble” if Republicans take up the issue, Democratic consultant Mark Mellman said.

With growing numbers of younger Americans accustomed to stock-market and other investments, many Republicans think they can snare a lasting political victory among the nation’s 20- and 30-somethings. First, however, they acknowledge they must lay the groundwork carefully, assuring seniors and workers nearing retirement that their benefits won’t be reduced.

“I’ve run on Social Security reform three times and never had a problem,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who will head the Senate Budget Committee next year. “People who are willing to take the time to explain the issue will find a very receptive public out there.”

Even so, with Social Security’s projected insolvency four decades away, many Republicans may be tempted to leave the problem’s resolution to future Congresses.

“Cowardice is always an option,” said moderate Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a supporter of moving ahead next year. “I think long-term political parties are built on bold statements and facing big problems.”