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Senators consider higher retirement age

David Espo Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Key Senate Republicans are considering gradually raising the Social Security retirement age as high as 69 over several years as they try to jump-start legislation President Bush placed atop his second-term agenda, officials said Tuesday.

Under current law, the retirement age for full Social Security benefits is 65 1/2 and is scheduled to reach 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

The possible increase to 69 over two decades or more was among suggestions Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, presented to fellow Republicans on the panel last week as part of an attempt to give the program greater financial solvency, the officials said.

Grassley also suggested steps to hold down benefits for upper-wage earners of the future, these officials have said previously. They spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying the discussions were confidential.

The disclosures surfaced as Bush campaigned in Pennsylvania for changes in Social Security, including creation of voluntary personal accounts for younger workers – a step that would be accompanied by a reduction in the government benefit.

Speaking to a convention of the Pennsylvania FFA – formerly known as the Future Farmers of America – Bush said he wants to “make sure the system is a better deal for younger workers” and assured older people in the audience that they would continue to get their promised benefits.

The students would get the same benefits that seniors today receive, Bush said, without mentioning that his plans involve a reduction in the benefits younger Americans have been promised in their own retirement.

Democrats charged that rural Americans would be hit hardest by Bush’s plans, which they consistently describe as privatization.

“Rural Americans tend to be older and more likely to depend on Social Security. In fact, more than 90 percent of counties in America with high senior populations are rural counties. In 2001, 20 percent of rural Americans were 60 years old or older, significantly higher than the 15 percent of seniors living in metropolitan communities,” Reps. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., and Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., said in a joint statement. The two co-chair the Democratic House Rural Working Group.

Republicans on the Finance Committee are scheduled to meet privately Thursday as they continue searching for agreement among themselves on legislation that achieves the goals Bush laid out in his State of the Union address last winter.

The fate of the effort remains unclear.

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