STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A Democratic member of Congress is challenging his party's tactics on Social Security. Democrats have united against President Bush's proposals to change the retirement program. Democrats have also resisted offering alternatives, saying it was up to Republicans to make the first moves. Then Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler decided to put forward his plan.
Representative ROBERT WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): I represent more Social Security recipients than any other Democratic representative in the country, the second most congressional districts in terms of numbers of Social Security recipients.
INSKEEP: The congressman from Florida says he wants to close the program's shortfall by raising taxes on upper-income Americans.
Rep. WEXLER: I thought it was very important for a Democrat to offer a Social Security plan which did not cut benefits and which did not raise the retirement age. Americans need to know that the alternative that President Bush proposes is not the only one. So I went ahead and will be offering this legislation which lifts the cap on taxable earnings for Social Security, which will require workers to pay a 3 percent payroll tax on wages above $90,000, and that'll be matched by the employer.
INSKEEP: Up to now, people who've made more than $90,000 in income, that income is not taxed under the Social Security system. You would have it taxed. Why did you think it was important for you to enter this debate now, Congressman?
Rep. WEXLER: Well, the president has been traveling the country for several months proposing his plans. He's been asking Democrats to respond. So far the American people have only heard that the way to resolve the Social Security shortfall is to cut benefits and to raise the retirement age and to engage in risky market privatization plans. That is not the only way. The Democratic Party has been united in opposing the president's privatized accounts, and I'm a part of that unified front.
INSKEEP: What, generally speaking, have you heard when you've spoken to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, or other Democratic leaders of the House about this?
Rep. WEXLER: Well, I've had two conversations with Mrs. Pelosi, and those were private conversations. I'd like to keep them that way. You know, Mrs. Pelosi has been very effective in engineering an organized, united front by Democrats against the president's plan, and I commend her for that. I believe that at this time we now need to go a step further and offer alternatives to the president's plan which do not cut benefits and which do not raise the retirement age.
INSKEEP: Did she commend you for that?
Rep. WEXLER: I think that would be a stretch. I think, you know, Mrs. Pelosi has her strategy and I respect that, and I'd like to let her speak to what her strategy is.
INSKEEP: You mentioned that you're doing this in part because you have so many senior citizens in your district. What kinds of messages had you been hearing from those many seniors as you moved toward this choice?
Rep. WEXLER: Well, for several months now, many of my senior citizens have been asking, `Where is the Democratic Party? Where is the Democratic Party, the party that gave birth to Social Security?' Where are our plans? And they need to hear from, I think, people like me and other Democrats to show them that there is an equitable way to resolve the Social Security shortfall without hurting middle-class Americans.
INSKEEP: Well, Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida, thanks very much.
Rep. WEXLER: My pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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