WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va., Jan. 28 -- President Bush on Friday promised House and Senate Republicans gathered here that he will provide them with political cover as he campaigns this year for passage of profound but politically risky changes in Social Security.
"I'm ready to lead, to take on a tough issue," Bush told lawmakers in a 45-minute private session, attendees said. "I'm confident I will sign a bill."
But in remarks that got a mixed reception, Bush suggested that his proposal for partially privatizing Social Security -- to be unveiled in February or early March -- may not be as detailed as some lawmakers had hoped. Several quoted Bush as saying that he wanted to give them "a little running room."
Worried about the possible peril to narrow GOP majorities in the House and Senate, Republican lawmakers have hesitated to embrace Bush's call for adding individual stock and bond accounts to the government's nearly 70-year-old retirement system. But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who told the White House only a month ago that he preferred to tackle the tax code instead, went before a party retreat Friday morning and said the lawmakers had a "moral obligation" to take on the politically risky issue.
"First and foremost on the agenda is, and must be, a comprehensive package to strengthen retirement security for all generations," DeLay said in remarks that were closed to reporters but described by attendees. "This opportunity for reform may not come again, and we have a moral obligation to seize it."
House leaders have said recently that the president has to issue a detailed plan to restructure Social Security and add personal investment accounts, then sell it himself before he could possibly hope to get broad Republican support. In contrast, Senate leaders, backed by Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have said the White House should leave it to Congress to work quietly on a bipartisan Social Security package that is not explicitly the president's.
The Associated Press reported that Bush's advisers have settled on a plan for individual accounts that would resemble many company-sponsored retirement plans, with a handful of investment options. But White House officials said that Bush's policy is still being developed and he has not signed off on the final contours.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, stepped up their criticism of Bush's bid to change Social Security, with some saying their party is gaining momentum in the debate's early stages.
Eight Democratic senators conducted a three-hour hearing in which they accused the president of exaggerating Social Security's long-term problems and undermining its strengths.
"The administration is once again manufacturing a crisis," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) said at the Capitol Hill event. "It is not accurate to say, as the president did just the other day," that Social Security will be "flat bust, bankrupt" when retirement time arrives for workers now in their twenties, he said.
Several experts at the hearing noted that Social Security will be able to pay full benefits through 2042 or even 2052 -- depending on which government projection is used -- and for years beyond that, the benefits would drop by 20 to 30 percent.
Although Social Security "does face long-term challenges" because of baby boomers' approaching retirement, "the White House's privatization plan would only make matters worse," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Bush's plan to divert some of the payroll taxes that pay for Social Security, he said, would result in a cut in benefits and a larger budget deficit.
Elected Democrats generally have declined to propose even modest changes to Social Security, saying Bush first must detail his proposal.
House officials said leaders have decided after intense internal debate that they are better off passing the new law this year so that they have most of next year to explain it before facing voters in the midterm elections.
In what aides called a taste of a busy schedule to come, the White House announced that after Bush gives more details of his Social Security goals in the State of the Union address on Wednesday, he will spend the next two days traveling to five states -- including Florida, with its heavy concentration of senior citizens -- to try to marshal support.
Bush repeatedly cast his plans in grand terms, speaking of his desire to do "big things," despite his promise to cut the deficit and the failure of the White House to explain how he wants to pay for an agenda that includes permanent versions of his tax cuts and an expensive conversion of Social Security to allow personal accounts.
"I think we've proven to the country we know how to set an agenda and work together to achieve it," Bush told Republican senators and House members gathered for the weekend at the Greenbrier resort, here in the Alleghenies. "I look forward to talking to the country about the need to address big reforms like Social Security."
Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), chairman of the Republican leadership, told reporters after the closed-door session that Bush "told us that he's going to help us by providing some cover on some of the most important but also the toughest political battles -- Social Security being at the top of that list."
DeLay, with Capitol Police officers guarding the doors, acknowledged that some of the coming votes would be hard but spoke of an "appointment with history" and said, "We cannot control how long we serve, only how well."
The lawmakers also met with White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten, who warned them that the budget to be released Feb. 7 restrains growth in domestic spending, aside from homeland security, to less than 1 percent.
Staff writer Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.