WASHINGTON - If there is a deal to be made on Social Security, the broker may be a little-known South Carolina Republican who has been in the Senate for just two years.
While seniority usually carries the day in Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham has assembled a small group of Democrats and Republicans with the intention of producing what no one else has: a bipartisan bill to add personal retirement accounts to Social Security.
Graham is an unlikely dealmaker. He is not chairman of any committee. He is not even on the committee that will write the bill. And he is no moderate.
First in the House and now in the Senate, Graham has compiled a solidly conservative voting record. He took on a partisan task as one of the House managers who presented the case for the impeachment of President Clinton.
"I can't say I ever would have thought of him taking the lead on this issue," said Derrick Max, who heads a business-backed coalition that advocates the private accounts.
Supporters of such accounts agree they will need the endorsement of lawmakers from both parties to get the bill passed, particularly in the Senate.
So far, only a few Senate Democrats - Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Thomas Carper of Delaware - have indicated even a willingness to consider President Bush's idea of letting people create private accounts with some of their Social Security taxes.
Graham hopes to change that. He has won particular attention by breaking with Republican orthodoxy to suggest that part of the solution will involve raising taxes.
"Why should I expect someone in this job to be braver than I want to be?" he asked in an interview. "I'm asking both parties to sacrifice their ideology for the common good."
He is willing to criticize Bush, at least gently, for failing to offer a comprehensive plan for the retirement program. "It's a fair criticism of the president to say he's talking about personal accounts in isolation from the problems they present," Graham said.
The affable Graham, 49, became energized on Social Security during that 2002 Senate race when he was attacked for advocating private accounts. He won anyway and began working on a broad plan after taking office.
He traces his interest in Social Security to his own family. His parents were of modest means, and when he was in college, they died, a year apart. At 13, his sister moved in with their aunt and uncle and was supported by Social Security survivor benefits through college.
"We needed the money," Graham says.
Today, their aunt and uncle, now in their 70s, are retired, and their income comes from Social Security, a newspaper route and money Graham sends home to help out.
"I know first hand that we cannot let the system fail people who need it the most," he said.
Graham, served 6 1/2 years on active duty as an Air Force lawyer before going into private law practice. He was elected to the House in 1994, when Newt Gingrich's GOP captured the House under the "Contract with America" campaign. When Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., retired after nearly a half-century in the Senate, Graham won his seat.
When Bush made Social Security his domestic priority for a second term, Graham was ready with a plan to create the accounts and fix Social Security's long-term finances - and he had ideas for how to get Democrats to join him.
Graham acknowledges that creating personal accounts does little to solve the program's long-term financial troubles.
Unlike Bush, the senator talks about the need to cut benefits, though he wants to soften the blow for older people on low income. But what has drawn the attention of policy-makers is Graham's suggestion that higher taxes help cover the cost of the transition to private accounts.
Under the current system, Social Security taxes are paid on only the first $90,000 of income. Graham suggests raising that cap, perhaps to $200,000, to make up some of the money that personal accounts would drain from the system. At the current Social Security tax rate of 6.2 percent, a $200,000 cap would mean someone with that income would be paying an additional $6,820 a year in taxes.
"I'm not designing a bill that will make Republicans jump up and down about me," Graham said.
Overall, Graham's ideas are squarely Republican. He firmly agrees with Bush that workers should have the ability to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts for investment in stocks and bonds.
Graham believes he can win Democratic support by structuring private accounts responsibly, protecting the poor and avoiding putting the government a trillion dollars more in debt to pay for transition to the new system.
"Eventually, we're going to have to pay for something," he said. "If I can get bipartisan support we're off to the races."
No Democrat has signed onto his legislation, but several keep coming back to Graham's behind-the-scenes meetings.
"He's playing an important role," Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said last week as he headed to one of the sessions. "He seems to have the guts to make a proposal."
Added Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will write the legislation: "Anybody trying to get something together is playing a helpful role."
Other Democrats who have participated in the sessions include Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Nebraska's Nelson, Bill Nelson of Florida and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Also attending are two powerful Republicans - Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Finance Committee chairman, and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the Budget Committee chairman.
Even Republicans who dislike Graham's idea of raising the ceiling on Social Security taxes say his efforts are crucial to passing the bill.
"He's doing the hard work that it doesn't seem a lot of other members want to do," said Max, who heads the business-backed Alliance for Worker Retirement Security. "We're placing a lot of hope in his efforts."
On the Net:
Sen. Graham's statements on Social Security: http://lgraham.senate.gov/index.cfm?modeissues&cid2072