Bush reform favors low-income retirees

Friday, April 29, 2005

WASHINGTON -- President Bush urged Congress to enact contentious Social Security and energy legislation and confirm his controversial court nominees Thursday night, prodding lawmakers to act on an ambitious second-term agenda.

"I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work," Bush said of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Nearing the end of a 60-day nationwide campaign for his Social Security proposals, Bush told a prime-time White House news conference he favored changes to tilt the current system to favor low-income retirees of the future.

"If you work hard and pay into Social Security your entire life, you will not retire into poverty," he said.

The news conference was Bush's first in prime time since he won re-election, and the White House maneuvered to make maximum use of it. Officials moved up the scheduled start of the event by 30 minutes to ensure that all major networks would carry most of it.

Bush spoke as White House officials issued written material saying the type of change he had in mind could be accomplished with a "sliding scale benefit formula." That would mean lower payments for future retirees of middle and upper incomes than they are currently guaranteed -- a fact Bush himself did not mention in his 60-minute session with reporters.

Democrats quickly pounced.

"All the president did tonight was confirm that he will pay for his risky privatization scheme by cutting the benefits of middle-class seniors," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrats in Congress.

In opening remarks that touched on the rising price of gasoline as well as Social Security, Bush pledged, "There will be no price gouging at gas pumps in America." The House has approved energy legislation, and a companion measure is awaiting action in the Senate. Bush said he wanted a bill on his desk by summer.

Bush also urged the Senate to take "up or down" votes on his controversial nominees to the appeals courts. Democrats filibustered 10 of his first-term appeals court nominees, blocking confirmation votes on them. Bush has renominated seven of the 10, and Democrats have threatened to attempt to block them once more.

At the same time he renewed his call for the Senate to confirm his court appointments, Bush steered well clear of claims by some social conservatives that Democratic opposition is based on religion.

"I think people oppose my nominees because of judicial philosophy," he said.

He strongly defended John Bolton, whose nomination to become United Nations ambassador has come under heavy Democratic criticism in the Senate, calling him the right man to usher in an era of reform at the world body.

On foreign policy, Bush made plain his unhappiness with Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. "We didn't appreciate that," he said, "But we made ourselves clear." The two men are scheduled to meet in Moscow early next month.

Bush said he is pressing Iraq's incoming prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to refrain from tinkering with the structure of the Iraqi security force that the U.S. military is creating and training. Bush called that possibility "one of the real dangers" as Iraq transitions to an independent democracy.

On another sensitive subject, Bush said he wanted to reach a diplomatic solution in six-nation talks that would pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. While the United States has raised the possibility to taking the issue to the United Nations, Bush said that would require a consensus, noting that some parties in the talks with North Korea have the ability to veto any U.N. resolution. "And what we want to do is to work with our allies on this issue and develop a consensus, a common approach, to the consequences of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il," he said.

The president offered little in the way of details on what he'd like to see in Social Security legislation, although he said he was still insisting on creation of voluntary personal accounts for younger workers as part of a measure to ensure permanent financial solvency for the venerable Depression-era program.

The president sought to reassure lower-income Americans they had nothing to fear from an overhaul of the program.

As for future retirees with higher lifetime earnings, Bush said they should be able to "count on a benefit equal to or higher than today's seniors." That formula left open the possibility that guaranteed benefits for middle and upper income seniors could be cut in later years to bring Social Security's finances into balance.

The president is nearing the end of a 60-day nationwide sales campaign for his Social Security proposals. But polls show support for voluntary personal accounts is sagging, Democratic opposition appears unshakable and some Republicans are skittish, fearing a political backlash in 2006.

"The money from a voluntary personal retirement account would supplement the check one receives from Social Security," Bush said. He added that personal accounts would also leave retirees with nest eggs that can be passed along in the future, but that was another case in which he omitted key details.

Administration officials have told Republicans in Congress that lower-income workers who retire with personal accounts would be required to purchase annuities to guarantee themselves a lifetime benefit. In some cases, the cost of the annuity would deplete their personal accounts, leaving nothing to be inherited.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said he intends to present legislation to the panel this summer.

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