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A Stepped-Up Drumbeat on Social Security

Bush Courts Public And Congress on Personal Accounts

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A03

BLUE BELL, Pa., Feb. 10 -- President Bush continued stumping for his plan to change the Social Security system Thursday, amid increasingly vocal opposition from members of Congress and others concerned that the proposal would erode guarantees the federal retirement program has offered since its inception.

Appearing in events here and earlier in Raleigh, N.C., Bush touted his plan to allow young workers to divert a portion of their taxes to personal investment accounts, saying it would help them build nest eggs to cushion them against the cuts likely to come as a result of Social Security's long-term fiscal problems.

President Bush speaks about Social Security and personal investment accounts during an appearance in Blue Bell, Pa. (Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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Social Security

Bush challenged Congress to confront the challenge posed by Social Security, saying, "I think candidates are rewarded, not punished, for taking on tough issues."

In remarks to a North Carolina audience that included former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Bush ridiculed the notion that "some people are incapable of investing," calling it "a concept I totally reject."

Bush was greeted in North Carolina by several dozen protesters who held placards emblazoned with slogans such as "Hands Off My Social Security" and "Stop the Lies" as the presidential motorcade pulled up to the performance arts center where he spoke. A few sign-waving Social Security protesters also were visible along the route to his event here at Montgomery County Community College.

Shortly after Bush's visit to Raleigh, five Democratic members of Congress from North Carolina held a conference call in which they excoriated the potential cost of establishing personal accounts. "He left out the fact that his plan would cost trillions of dollars that would have to be borrowed from foreign countries," Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge said. "And he forgot to mention that his plan does nothing to secure Social Security for the long haul."

Such sentiment is widespread in Congress, where Bush's proposal faces near-unanimous opposition from Democrats and deep skepticism from many Republicans.

Bush said he envisions income from the accounts supplementing Social Security for individuals, but the White House acknowledges that the accounts by themselves do nothing to solve the system's long-term fiscal problems.

The nation's aging population is putting a severe financial strain on Social Security, which is projected to pay out more in benefits than it takes in through taxes by 2018. By 2042, the system will be unable to pay promised benefits without a tax increase or some other infusion of money.

With life expectancy up, birth rates down and the nation's large baby-boom population beginning to reach retirement age, "we are facing a perfect storm, a perfect demographic storm," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who introduced Bush here.

In his twin appearances Thursday, Bush offered no plans to close the projected Social Security funding gap, other than to rule out tax increases. He mentioned several ideas, including an increase in the retirement age and cuts in promised benefits, saying he is open to discussing them with members of Congress. "All ideas are on the table," he said.

The White House has said that setting up personal accounts would cost $754 billion by 2015, and trillions of dollars afterward. Despite the heavy upfront costs, Bush insists that the plan would pave the way for a permanent fix for the funding problems that have cropped up repeatedly since Social Security was signed into law in 1935.

In his remarks, Bush framed his proposal in philosophical terms, saying allowing workers to own their accounts would give more Americans "a sense of participation in the system." The accounts, he said, would give people the capacity to build wealth and then pass it to their heirs, which Bush said, "stabilizes society" and "makes society more hopeful."

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