by Lawrence M. O'Rourke
January 12, 2005
"I see a problem. I also see a solution," the president told a White House rally for Social Security overhaul. "This isn't easy. If it were easy, it would have already been done. Kind of makes it fun, though, isn't it, to take on the tough jobs."
Bush was the kickoff speaker in an administration blitz that is sending Vice President Dick Cheney, cabinet members and White House officials on the road to sell the idea that Social Security needs to be changed this year.
"Some Americans would rather not talk about changing Social Security," the president told a forum arranged by the White House. For some, there's "too much political danger" attached to Social Security, the president declared, saying this had led to an attitude of ignoring the retirement system's problems.
"I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the U.S.A. Congress has got the willingness to act now," the president said.
"Once we assure the seniors who will receive Social Security today that everything is fine, I think we got a shot to get something done," Bush said. "Younger Americans really want to see some leadership."
Bush's goal is to modify the 70-year-old Social Security system with creation of an arrangement that would allow people roughly under age 55 to save for retirement through investments in stocks and bonds.
The specifics of Bush's plan have yet to be laid out, but the White House said that the details will be presented in time for Congress to work on the plan as it also works toward an overhaul of the federal tax system.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, a leading voice for House Democrats on Social Security, said Tuesday that Social Security needs some changing to avoid deficit spending by 2018 and insolvency by the middle of the century.
But Levin said the president was using "distortion, exaggeration and scare tactics" in trying to make a case for allowing the diversion of Social Security taxes into private accounts _ a step that many Democrats see as the beginning of the end for traditional Social Security.
"The president needs to reveal his plan now," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of the House Social Security subcommittee. "No more catch phrases. No more theology. Let's put the numbers on the blackboard and see if they add up."
Bush and many Democrats were in agreement that the political sensitivity of Social Security on Capitol Hill would likely make any changes impossible unless there is a bipartisan agreement.
Meanwhile at the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the president's mandate on changing Social Security.
"It was one of the critical choices that the American people faced in this election," McClellan said. "The American people voted decisively for the president's agenda, and that includes his agenda to strengthen Social Security for future generations."
McClellan said there are a "number of Democrats that understand we have a very real structural problem facing Social Security and that now is the time to fix it."
In conceding the need for Democratic and Republican support, the president appeared to be acknowledging that for now virtually all Democrats in Congress oppose privatizing plans, and that enough Republicans stand with them in both the House and Senate to block any initiative submitted by the White House.
Several congressional Democrats made it clear Tuesday that they oppose Bush's plan to allow a diversion of money from Social Security taxes into private accounts.
"Under the Republican plan, Social Security gets weaker, not stronger," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. "Instead of cutting benefits, we should protect the only secure source of retirement income that American workers have."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Bush administration "wants to cut benefits by more than 40 percent to help pay the trillions of dollars that would be needed for private accounts, but the truth is that private accounts will do nothing to improve the financial health of Social Security."
Pelosi said that private accounts would "drain funding that otherwise would have been used to shore up the system."