FARGO, N.D., Feb. 3 -- President Bush pressured skeptical lawmakers Thursday to back the most dramatic Social Security changes in the program's 70-year history, targeting politically vulnerable Democratic senators to rally support for his plan.
One day after he used his State of the Union address to promote his plan to carve personal accounts out of the public retirement system, Bush emphasized the financial benefits of allowing Americans younger than 55 to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.
"It's your money," he told thousands of supporters at the University of North Dakota. "It's money you can decide to leave to whomever you want. It's money the government can never take away."
In his campaign-style appearances, Bush did not address the costs and risks associated with his proposal. But back on Capitol Hill, his plan met stiff opposition. Democrats and a few key Republicans warned that personal accounts would push budget deficits to dangerous heights and inject too much uncertainty into a program that has offered seniors a guaranteed benefit for the past seven decades.
In an unexpected blow to the administration, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), chairman of the subcommittee that handles Social Security, said Bush's plan must be changed in a fundamental way if it is to have a chance. McCrery said he should scrap the idea of funding accounts with money earmarked for the Social Security trust fund.
"It seems to me that if we insist on diverting payroll tax revenue, we have ensured opposition from the AARP and probably every single Democrat in the House and Senate, and that's not a good place to start," McCrery said in a telephone interview.
With Senate Republicans privately saying they plan to delay action on the proposal for several months, the president is betting he can eventually overcome opposition by building public support for change, pressuring lawmakers in states where he is popular and spending the political capital that he feels flows from winning a second term in office. So far, no Senate Democrat has embraced the partial privatization of Social Security.
Bush told the mostly partisan crowd here that he would never "play politics with the issue." He is campaigning, election-style, for the new accounts this week in the back yards of three Senate Democrats the GOP is targeting for defeat in 2006: Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida.
Bush employed polite persuasion more than arm-twisting pressure to try to win over Thursday's targets: Conrad and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), both of whom have been critical of personal accounts. Conrad, who spoke with Bush for more than 90 minutes aboard Air Force One, showed no signs of bending.
"There is a kernel of a good idea with individual accounts to provide greater incentives for savings and investment," Conrad said later in an interview. "But it's not a good idea if it's financed by massive borrowing or steep benefit cuts. That's the problem I have with the plan as outlined thus far." Conrad also said he thinks changes to Medicare and the tax code should be debated at the same time -- a suggestion far beyond what Bush has planned.
Under the emerging Bush plan, workers younger than 55 could voluntarily put some of their payroll tax, which funds Social Security, into individual investment accounts. In exchange, workers would forfeit a portion of their guaranteed benefit in hope of reaping a higher rate of return on their investment and a bigger nest egg. The money could not be touched, or borrowed against, until retirement, and the accounts would be tightly regulated. Americans 55 and older would not be affected by the changes.
At a town hall meeting here that often sounded as much like a late-night comedy show as a policy seminar, Bush repeatedly cracked jokes and teased attendees -- when he was not talking about esoteric topics such as compounding interest, phase-in schedules and solvency.
What the president did not discuss was how the transition to the new system would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the budget deficit over the next two decades and expose Americans to the possibility of smaller retirement checks than those envisioned under the current program.
Using charts and handpicked supporters concerned about Social Security's future, Bush detailed how experts predict that about 13 years from now the system will start paying out more in benefits than it is receiving in taxes and how the problem will worsen every year thereafter. Eventually, he said, the whole system will become bankrupt. "I expect people in Congress, when they see a problem, to then come up with solutions," he said.