Thursday, February 03, 2005

Social Security Makeover Tops Bush Agenda

Social Security Makeover Tops Bush Agenda


By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Trying to build pressure on a wary Congress, President Bush (news - web sites) campaigned Thursday for changes in Social Security (news - web sites) that would combine reduced government benefits for younger workers with "a chance to build a nest egg" through personal accounts.

"We must make Social Security permanently sound, not leave that task for another day," Bush told lawmakers in a State of the Union address Wednesday night that elicited applause from Republicans and audible grumbles from Democrats in the audience.

With success in Congress far from assured, the president boarded Air Force One for a two-day, five-state trip to sell his program. Each state he visits is represented in the Senate by at least one Democrat the administration hopes to sway on Social Security.

Bush's first stop was North Dakota, which he won heavily in last fall's election. Even so, early indications were not so positive this time.

"He's saying we've got to take more money out of Social Security to start private accounts and borrow the money," said Sen. Kent Conrad (news, bio, voting record), D-N.D., a target of Bush's travels. "I just think it's very unwise."

Other Democrats said Bush's program could reduce guaranteed government benefits for younger Americans by 40 percent.

Bush offered no information on that point Wednesday night as he outlined his plans in broad strokes. Aides said that by leaving many key details vague, he intended to give GOP congressional leaders room to piece together legislation that can command a majority.

He laid down a few markers, though, saying he will not agree to increase payroll taxes and wants provisions to keep lower-income Americans above the poverty line during retirement.

"We must guarantee that there is no change" in current or promised benefits for anyone age 55 and older, he said in a move to neutralize opposition from older Americans.

In a 53-minute speech, Bush also blended the conservative with the compassionate, and gave no ground on his policy on the war in Iraq (news - web sites) in which more than 1,400 American forces have died.

He renewed his call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and announced an increase in the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful convictions. "Soon I will send Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases," he added.

In an echo of his inaugural address pledge to promote freedom overseas, he called on the government of Iran to "end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

The longest applause was when Bush recognized Janet and Bill Norwood, the parents Marine Sgt. Byron Norwood of Pflugerville, Texas, who was killed in the assault of Fallujah. In an emotional and symbolic moment, Mrs. Norwood and Safia Taleb al-Suhail, leader of the Iraqi Women's Political Council, held each other in a long embrace. The Iraqi woman had evoked her own protracted applause earlier when she stood and saluted Congress with an ink-stained finger and V-for-victory sign after the president had introduced her as a symbol of millions of Iraqis who voted in a free election for the first time last Sunday.

Social Security was the centerpiece of the speech, and Bush called for far-reaching changes in a program that was established in 1935 and remains one of the enduring legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress must "strengthen and save" the program, Bush said, warning that without action, it was headed for bankruptcy. Official estimates predict that benefits will exceed tax receipts beginning in 2018. In 2042, these estimates predict the trust funds will be exhausted, and benefits will have to be cut to 73 percent of current levels.

The president noted that a variety of solutions have been proposed over the years — such as limiting benefits for wealthy retirees, raising the retirement age, indexing benefits to prices rather than wages, discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits and changing the ways benefits are calculated — and said all are "on the table."

"I know that none of these reforms would be easy. But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty because our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics," Bush said.

"He made it clear to the American people why we must strengthen the Social Security system, and gave the American people a realistic plan for how to do it," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said.

"Before the president's opponents get too worked up solely to scare seniors and play politics, I would hope both parties take the details of tonight's speech to heart," added Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Democrats, who argue that Bush is depicting the problems as grimmer than they are, attacked as soon as he finished speaking.

"There's a lot we can do to improve Americans' retirement security, but it's wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of 40 percent or more," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who delivered his party's formal response along with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi, referring to Bush's travels over the next few days, said that "When the president goes out there to beat the drum for his privatization to undermine Social Security, I think he will be greeted throughout the country by people who are affected by it every day of their lives."

In addition to North Dakota, Bush had Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida on his itinerary.

As Bush predicted, changing Social Security won't be easy. Neither the House nor the Senate has announced a schedule for hearings or drafting legislation, and there is lingering unease among some Republicans fearful of political repercussions.

The AARP, a powerful advocacy group for Americans age 50 and over, renewed its opposition to a key feature of Bush's plan.

According to officials who were briefed in private by the administration, the guaranteed Social Security benefit would be cut for all workers under 55, more so for those who decide to establish a personal account than for others.

After a brief phase in, younger workers could invest two-thirds of their payroll taxes in the new personal accounts. They would be required to purchase an investment guaranteed to keep their income above the federal poverty level during retirement.
Bill's Commentary:

To begin, I am all for the President's plan to privatize a small portion of what we pay in our Social Security taxes (FICA on your pay stub). It will only be about four percent to begin, with gradual increases over time. To put it in laymen's terms for all of you simple-minded liberal nitwits, it will run similar to a IRA or 401(k) plan. The rate of return, under this plan, will be at least twice as better as the status quo.

Regarding the Democratic Party response, it is still the anti-Bush thing going on and on. The main reason why they are against it is because it will be less money for the folks down in Washington to waste. All they can do is attack, smear, and scare certain folks; but, do you ever notice that they almost never have a solution, other than keeping the status quo the way it is? They want to hold the President "accountable"? Go for it. At least this President will hold himself accountable, unlike the prior regime.

Here is the bottom line for Social Security. If the Democratic-controlled Congress from the 1950's to 1995 had not have borrowed from the Social Security Fund to pay for useless pork barrel projects, handouts, and LBJ's "The Great Society" concept, Social Security would not be in this state. Something has to be done to remedy this situation. The sooner this can get through both chambers of Congress and obtain the President's signature, the brighter the outlook will be.

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