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Gramm unafraid to tackle tough political issues

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has little in common with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. But without fanfare, the conservative Gramm is borrowing a page from the political playbook of the liberal stalwart from Massachusetts.

Not long ago, a common water-cooler joke in the capital held that the most dangerous place to be standing in Washington was between Gramm and a television camera. But last month, Gramm didn't even bother showing up for the media cattle-call in the Capitol's Statuary Hall after Clinton's State of the Union speech. While other senators and representatives eagerly threw themselves to the waiting media horde, Gramm beat a rapid retreat after Clinton's speech.These days, instead of posturing for the cameras, Gramm is doing what Kennedy did after putting his presidential ambitions aside more than a decade ago: He's throwing himself into the job of U.S. senator. While many of his colleagues are politicking by polls and sound-bites, Gramm is quietly and methodically tackling two of the most difficult public policy issues of our time: Social Security and Medicare.

His willingness to take on these issues make him almost a solitary figure in today's GOP. After the drubbing they took from President Clinton on Medicare in 1995, many Republicans would rather be caught naked with an intern than be accused of trying to take health care or pension checks away from senior citizens. Not Gramm, who isn't afraid to take on what promises to be a defining battle in the years ahead.

Gramm has been using his chairmanship of the Republican Steering Committee - a group of conservative GOP senators - to woo support from his fellow senators on entitlement issues. A recent Wednesday Steering Committee meeting featured a presentation on Medicare reform. The Wednesday before that, Gramm brought in Harvard economics professor Martin Feldstein to discuss his vision of an "investment-based" Social Security program.

"I've been working now for about two years on these two issues," Gramm told us, "on as much of a full-time basis as a politician can ever work on something. And we're developing a concrete program to try to move from a debt-based system for Medicare and Social Security to an investment-based system."

His idea is to take the "surplus" in the Social Security trust fund - about 3 cents of every dollar in wages - and invest it in real assets that gain value over time. The money would still be deducted as part of the payroll tax; it just wouldn't be put in the "trust fund," converted into Treasury notes and used to fund current government services, as is now the case. The investments would be regulated by the federal government for safety and soundness.

"The only thing I've found that is powerful enough to dig us out of this hole (when the baby boom generation begins retiring)," Gramm continued, "is the power of compound interest."

Getting something passed into law will be a difficult - if not impossible - task, at least this year. Clinton raised the profile of the issue when he proposed "reserving" any federal budget surplus until something is done to fix Social Security. But in typical fashion, he offered no solutions to pay for the retirement needs of his and future generations.

"For people who are really working in this area, they are disappointed that having raised (Social Security), he didn't say anything" Gramm said. "It's obvious it was simply a political ploy. But that doesn't mean we can't use it to help promote a legitimate program."

It's a task that's sure to earn him enemies. But then, Gramm has never been overly popular with his colleagues. The former Democrat has always had trouble finding his niche in the GOP. Once a college economics professor, Gramm doesn't get as worked up over hot-button social issues as some others. As a presidential candidate two years ago, he alienated many social conservatives when he told Dr. James Dobson, head of the influential Focus on Family organization, that's he was "running for president, not preacher."

Gramm's humbling may have something to do with the drubbing he took in the 1996 presidential primaries. After two years of tireless work preparing for a presidential run, Gramm spent $28 million and wound up winning only two national delegates. It was a classic Washington candidacy. Gramm's money and preparation caught the attention of the political intelligentsia. But he never caught the imagination of voters.

Asked at the end of an interview if he plans to run for president again, Gramm responds: "Not at the moment I'm not."

It just may be that this singularly ambitious politician will leave his biggest mark on the institution that he once regarded as a stepping-stone.