Bush admits Social Security overhaul faces tough battle

Saturday, February 5, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- President Bush, on a road trip to promote private Social Security accounts, acknowledged Friday that his proposal would not by itself fix the future financial problems of the retirement program.

Though many in his own party are wary of tampering with a beloved domestic program, the president said he would push ahead.

"The harder the issue, the bigger the challenge, and the more exciting it's going to be when we get the job done," he said.

Bush began the day in Omaha, Neb., and then traveled to Little Rock and finally Tampa, Fla. He said he was open to any idea for making Social Security solvent.

"Bring 'em on and we'll sit down and have a good discussion about how to get something done," he said.

The president warned against "scare tactics" in the debate. "We're not going to play political gotcha," he said. "Now is not the time to make this issue a highly partisan issue."

Politics at work

But Bush's itinerary indicated politics at work. His trip was tailored to pressure Democratic senators -- some of them up for re-election next year -- representing states that went for Bush in November to back his idea for letting younger workers put up to two-thirds of their Social Security tax contributions in accounts invested in stocks and bonds. In return, those workers would see an unspecified reduction in their traditional Social Security benefit.

"I fully recognize that the personal retirement account is not the only thing needed to solve Social Security permanently," Bush said. "But it's a part of the solution." The president has not spelled out the size of benefit cuts that would go along with the private accounts.

Bush repeated his pledge not to change benefits for those already getting checks or those 55 and older. And he continued to stress that the Social Security system would be "flat bust" in 2042, when it will be able to cover about 73 percent of benefits owed.

A heckler in the Nebraska crowd wasn't buying it. "Quit lying ... you liar," he yelled.

"We love free speech in America," Bush replied and then continued his speech.

Bush went to Little Rock to woo the backing of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., a centrist Democrat who has supported Bush in the past. She said she "will not allow current benefits to be put at risk."

At his last stop Friday in Tampa, Fla., Bush said he's willing to listen to others' ideas about fixing Social Security and expects Congress to take seriously his proposal for private accounts.

"This is going to require a joint effort to get the job done," Bush said and then urged the audience to demand Social Security change from Congress. "Just remember, if you're a senior, nothing changes and if you're a youngster I'd be knocking on the members of the Congress and the Senate's door saying, 'What are you going to do?"'

The Florida stop was to target Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., another red-state Democrat facing re-election next year, who said he is leaning against private accounts.

"They will cut Social Security benefits," Nelson told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I will fight against the cuts to Social Security benefits, the massive borrowing and increase in debt that this will create."

In Omaha, Bush gently twisted the arm of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat who also has sided with Republicans before.

"He is a man with whom I can work -- a person who's willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America," Bush said.

Nelson, however, said he was disappointed that Bush did not disclose more details of his plan when he outlined it in his State of the Union address. "I'm looking to be supportive, but I can't support something until I see the entire plan," Nelson said.

The other senator from Nebraska, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, talking to reporters in an effort to buck up support for Bush's plan, said lawmakers were wary of overhauling the 70-year-old New Deal retirement program.

"It's politically risky for him and maybe others who support him," Hagel said of the president. "But I think the American public is very wise and understands that this is a program that's going to have to be reformed."

Thursday's travels had Bush in the home states of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee overseeing Social Security, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee with jurisdiction over the program. Both were skeptical in interviews of the success in Congress for the president's proposal.

Later Friday, there was evidence the White House is on the defensive about its proposal, as it released a publication by its Council of Economic Advisers rebutting the most common criticisms of Bush's arguments:

--Democrats have objected to the administration's portrayal of the system as in crisis and Bush's frequent use of the word "bankrupt" to describe the system by 2042. But the council said the word is accurate, because at that point the system -- with the Social Security Trust Fund completely drawn down and tax revenue still insufficient to cover all but 73 percent of promised benefits -- would be unable to meet all its obligations.

--Democrats have said Bush's assertion that private accounts invested in stocks and bonds would yield a greater rate of return is wildly unrealistic. The paper stuck by the claim, saying it is based on historical experience and independent professional estimates.

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