Republicans are making their own plans to promote Social Security reform, less than a week before President Clinton opens a series of town hall meetings on overhauling the retirement system.

"Politicians in Washington must begin work now," said Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.At a hearing Wednesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was joining Archer and other GOP leaders to promote legislation creating an eight-member bipartisan commission that would have until Feb. 1 to come up with ideas to keep Social Security from being overwhelmed by the retirements of baby boomers.

Former Republican senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who was part of the last commission that recommended major changes in Social Security, made in 1983, was invited to offer his advice.

Gingrich has agreed with Clinton that Social Security should take top priority as lawmakers decide how to use any federal surpluses resulting from last year's balanced budget deal.

But the speaker is supporting GOP budget-writers in a push to use the money to help start private retirement accounts for working Americans. One proposal, offered by House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., would establish the accounts this year as an add-on to Social Security.

Gingrich is encouraging Republican lawmakers to talk about the private savings idea at home during the spring congressional recess, scheduled to start at the end of this week.

To help, the GOP commissioned a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which showed that people who are 58 years old now will have to live in retirement until they are 85 and 38-year-olds until they are 91 to get back what they paid into the Social Security system during their working years.

"Social Security's message seems to be `eat well and get plenty of exercise,' " said Archer.

Investing for themselves in the stock market would get Americans a better return, Republicans will argue.

Administration officials have promised to give everyone a fair hearing at four regional town hall meetings Clinton has called, starting April 7 in Kansas City, Mo.