Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a subdued reaction Wednesday to President Bush's veiled criticism of the senator's proposal to cut the Social Security tax.
Moments after hearing the president's State of the Union address, the New York Democrat said he agreed -- in a way -- with Bush's opinion that "the last thing we need to do is mess around with Social Security."
Moynihan said: "I feel they've been messing around with Social Security by using Social Security taxes to reduce the deficit."
The senator said he didn't think the president was trying to label him as the villain in the Social Security debate.
"I'm glad he acknowledged this as an issue," Moynihan said. "We've been talking at one another about this issue. Now we might talk to each other about it."
Moynihan set off a political firestorm with his recent suggestion to roll back the Social Security payroll tax to 5.1 percent from 6.2 percent. He said his plan would put the retirement program back on a pay-as-you-go basis, and prevent the government from using excess Social Security tax collections to help reduce the deficit.
During fiscal 1990, $67 billion in excess Social Security taxes are being used to cut the deficit to $133 million.
Moynihan contends that using the tax collections in that way is a dishonest way of covering up the true size of the deficit. But Bush has insisted that the government stick by its 1983 funding plan for Social Security, which he said "fully funds today's benefits and assures that future benefits will be funded as well."
In his speech, Bush said he will stand up to any threats to the Social Security system.
"To every American out there on Social Security . . . we made a promise to you, and we are going to keep it," he said.
Bush's comments prompted an immediate standing ovation from Republicans in Congress. Democrats seemed caught off guard by Bush's comments, joining the standing ovation a few seconds later.
Other members of New York's congressional delegation also focused on Bush's comments on Social Security.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., said: "The president is absolutely right. We shouldn't be tampering with Social Security."
But Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, said: "I don't think Social Security should be messed with, either. I don't want President Bush messing with it to make the deficit look smaller than it is."
In general, reaction to Bush's speech fell along party lines.
"To me, the best thing about it was that it set a scope," said Rep. Amory Houghton, R-Corning. "It wasn't a detailed, accountant-like talk."
Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, said Bush's speech was "right on track." He said he was particularly happy that the president spelled out his goals for improving the environment, the nation's educational system and its industrial competitiveness.
Democrats, meanwhile, said Bush doesn't want to back up his rhetoric with money.
"The lofty goals he mentioned were laudable, but if you compare that to the budget -- which is the real thing -- they just don't match," said Rep. Henry Nowak, D-Buffalo. For example, Nowak said, Bush talked about improving the nation's educational system while his 1991 budget would cut financial aid for college students.
Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said the State of the Union address was little more than a television event.
"Television has totally destroyed the State of the Union address," he said. "This speech is not going to do anything about the nation's declining industrial competitiveness. It neglects the total absence of investment in the nation's infrastructure, and it puts a mask over our budget problems."