But personal accounts alone would not solve Social Security's problem, both sides say. At some point, the government will be forced to cut benefits, raise taxes or restrict eligibility if the system is to stay solvent, Bush said. The president is leaving those choices to Congress but signaling he will support almost any change short of a tax increase.
"If you've got a good idea, come forth with your idea," he said. "Because now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers."
The seven Democratic senators in the five states Bush is visiting, all of which he won in November, remain largely opposed to the plan he described Wednesday night. Several said they are eager to talk about legislation that would strengthen or expand Social Security as it exists, but Bush would have to radically alter his proposal before it fit the possibilities they said they would consider.
Tacticians in the House and Senate said it could be months before substantive votes are taken on Social Security, although debate could start soon. House leaders typically like to pass bills first so they can better influence the parameters of what the Senate will consider, but many members are eager to let the Senate move first on this politically explosive issue.
Nevertheless, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said he is eager to begin. "We can't wait around till August for the Senate to do Social Security," he said. "The closer we get to an actual package, the clearer who goes first becomes."
Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, attended Bush's event in Great Falls, Mont., and said the president "clearly tried to extend a bit of an olive branch" by mentioning solutions in his State of the Union address. But, he said, "it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Congress to pass Social Security reform this year because the president's proposal is pretty extreme -- very different from all the previous ones."
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who stayed in Washington instead of attending Bush's event in Fargo, said he thinks Bush will eventually come around to strengthening Social Security "as it is" and adding new tax incentives for saving for retirement.
"There is very little support for adding 1 [trillion] to 3 trillion dollars in debt in this country, putting it in the stock market and cutting Social Security benefits," Dorgan told reporters on a conference call after the president's rally.
Democrats in Washington began a media campaign that invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the Social Security Act in 1935. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared with James Roosevelt, a grandson of the president, at the FDR Memorial and said Democrats will not let Bush turn "the New Deal into a raw deal." The Democrats released a letter bearing the signature of every Democratic senator except Ben Nelson calling for a Social Security plan that "minimizes the need for additional federal borrowing."
Nelson, who plans to attend Bush's event in Omaha on Friday, was the most receptive to what the president had to say. "I think most people agree that doing something is desirable, as long as you don't make matters worse trying to make them better," he said.
Allen reported from Washington.