Bush takes Social Security show on road

Campaign-style stops drum up public support

February 04, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OMAHA, Neb. - President Bush took his campaign to reform Social Security on the road yesterday, blitzing through states he won in last fall's elections in a drive to pressure Democrats to join the effort or risk the ire of constituents.

One day after calling on Congress to help him "strengthen and save" Social Security, Bush turned his attention to selling voters around the nation on his plan to add personal investment accounts to the program. He appeared in states that are home to centrist Democrats in his effort to build a groundswell of support.

"I expect people in Congress, when they see a problem, to then come up with solutions," Bush said during a campaign-style event in Fargo, N.D., where he was joined by Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat facing re-election in 2006. "Now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers."

Overhauling Social Security "is doable," Bush said in Great Falls, Mont. "It's just going to take some political will."

Bush arrived here last night for an appearance this morning, when he will be joined by Sen. Ben Nelson, another Democrat preparing to face voters next fall. Nelson, a leading moderate, is among the few senators in his party refusing to rule out Bush's Social Security proposal.

The president plans appearances in Little Rock, Ark., and Tampa, Fla., later today before he returns to Washington.

Democrats, who jeered as Bush highlighted the reforms in his State of the Union message Wednesday night, launched an aggressive effort yesterday to sink the plan even before any legislation reaches Capitol Hill.

Democratic senators clustered around the statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created the 70-year-old federal retirement insurance program, at his memorial in Washington, criticizing Bush's proposal as a risky move that would hasten the program's insolvency, currently projected as early as 2042.

"We cannot support privatization proposals that contain deep benefit cuts and massive increases in debt," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. "We are all for promoting retirement savings and helping Americans enhance their retirement security. But that doesn't mean taking Social Security's guarantee and gambling with it."

And activists from liberal groups, including organized labor, fanned out to the states Bush visited to stage local events voicing their opposition, some toting yellow and white signs reading, "Hands off my Social Security!"

The bitter response underscored the difficult road facing Bush as he stakes his second term - and perhaps his legacy - largely on his success in overhauling Social Security.

Many Republicans are deeply skeptical of the effort. Conservatives worry that it will swell the already-large federal deficit; many others fear that touching the program - long known as the "third rail of American politics" - would provoke a rebellion among constituents, spelling defeat for them at the polls.

But even if Bush can rally Republicans to his side, he will need the support of a handful of Senate Democrats - many of whom have signaled early opposition - to push the plan through Congress. Republicans strengthened their grip on both houses in the fall elections, but in the closely divided Senate, they remain five votes short of the 60-vote margin needed to overcome Democratic filibusters that can block any vote.

So Bush turned up the heat yesterday on Democrats representing conservative-leaning states, some of whom have supported him in the past and are facing re-election next fall.

The president, looking energized and cracking chipper jokes as he prowled the stage at packed events, never directly put the Democrats on the spot. But his remarks left little doubt that he would paint those who refuse to side with him as opportunists putting partisanship ahead of the retirement security of younger workers.

"I believe the role of a president and I believe the role of a Congress is to confront problems, and not send them on to future generations," Bush said at a sports arena in Fargo, his voice rising to a shout.

"When the people really figure we've got a problem, they're going to demand a solution," he told his audience in Great Falls. "They're going to say to members of both political parties, `What the heck are you doing in Washington, D.C., if you're not willing to settle down and solve the problems facing this generation?'"

Bush's aides acknowledge that his itinerary is geared toward winning key votes for his Social Security plan, but they deny he is trying to bully Democrats. Bush's destinations this week "are states in which he hopes to gain the support of members of Congress," a senior administration official said this week, adding that the president saw his appearances as "encouraging, not disparaging, toward those people who represent those states."

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