Bush Sees 'Opportunities' on Social Security, Immigration

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that he intends to work with the new Democratic majority in Congress on a broad range of domestic issues, declaring that despite the impending power shift there are "some wonderful opportunities" to address concerns that have long festered without a political solution.

Signaling a new flexibility on issues in the wake of the Democrats' wins, Bush said he is willing to discuss Democratic ideas for solving the Social Security problem, including tax increases. "I don't see how you can move forward without people feeling comfortable about putting ideas on the table," Bush said when asked about the prospect of tax increases to keep Social Security solvent. "I have made it clear that I have a way forward that can do it [without raising taxes] and I want to hear other people's opinions."

During an Oval Office interview with The Washington Post, Bush said voters are "sick and tired of the needless partisanship in Washington," adding that he plans to "talk about big issues" during his final two years in office and work with both parties to address them. Democrats have complained that the administration has largely ignored their views on domestic policy and the Iraq war for much of Bush's tenure.

Bush cited overhauling immigration laws and policies, expanding federal school accountability requirements and changing the fiscally imperiled Social Security system as areas in which prospects for bipartisan cooperation seemed brightest. "I view the election as an opportunity to say to all of us in Washington, 'Let's work together,' " he said. "People want that."

Bush came to Washington six years ago promising to be "a uniter, not a divider." But after initial bipartisan work to pass the No Child Left Behind education law, the president became a symbol for the partisanship that divides and paralyzes much of political Washington. Working with a Republican-run Congress that was able to marginalize Democratic opposition, Bush pushed through tax cuts and judicial nominees that in many cases engendered bitter opposition.

Two years ago, when the president began pressing to restructure Social Security, he set the most important terms of the debate: Private accounts had to be part of the solution, and new taxes could not. But since Democrats wrested control of both chambers of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections, Bush now faces a vastly altered political landscape.

During a meeting with Bush in the days after the election, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told him that she looked forward to seeing Democrats work in cooperation with the White House on issues including energy research and a guest-worker program for low-skilled immigrants. Asked yesterday whether the president's words were encouraging, Pelosi's spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, said: "Absolutely. But time will tell."

"We intend to work bipartisanly. We want to sit down at the table and have the discussion and come up with the best possible solution to these problems," she added.

On immigration, Bush said that he is interested in enacting a proposal, blocked earlier this year by House Republicans, that would establish a guest-worker program for low-skilled workers and a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

"I hope that Congress will join me on a comprehensive bill, and I would hope that the majority of both parties support it," he said.

While Bush said that voters clearly indicated they wanted more bipartisan cooperation, he did not characterize last month's election as a repudiation of his leadership. Instead, he said, the lack of progress in the war in Iraq and ethical lapses among Republican members of Congress soured voters on the GOP and created an opening for the Democrats' victory.

"There's a sense that people's votes were being taken for granted, in a way," Bush said. ". . . Look, you've got a guy using earmarks to enrich himself; there was sex and all kinds of issues that sent the signal that perhaps it was time to give another group a chance to lead." The president was referring to political corruption involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Mark Foley House page scandal.

Despite his party's loss, Bush said, he plans to continue advocating major policy initiatives. "The microphone of the president has never been louder . . . to talk about what I think is important," he said. "But it turns out that what I think is important, the Democratic leadership thinks is important, as well -- energy security, immigration reform, education -- and Republicans on the Hill agree."

Bush's new flexibility on Social Security is part of a larger White House plan to renew the effort to tame the rising costs of government entitlement programs as the nation's population ages. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who enjoys strong credibility among Democrats and Republicans, has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to talk about restructuring Social Security, emphasizing that there are no preconceptions.

Administration officials have said the White House is willing to listen to other ideas, including personal savings accounts that do not involve diverting Social Security payroll taxes, as well as higher payroll taxes to help cover the expected growth in the program's costs. Still, Bush emphasized that young workers should be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts, a proposal that went nowhere in Congress last year.

"I will tell you this: In an issue like this, unless the president tries, nothing is going to happen," Bush said. "Without presidential involvement, nothing will happen. So we have a chance, and I'm going to work it."

While Bush touted prospects for compromise with Democrats, his chief economic adviser warned yesterday that the new Congress poses the "biggest risk," potentially, to the nation's robust economy. Edward P. Lazear, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters that he is worried that Democratic lawmakers may try to raise taxes or enact "isolationist" trade policies that could steer the country toward recession.

"The president, of course, as you know, is very strongly opposed to any tax increases and will be effective in holding the line on any tax increases," Lazear said.

Bush ducked a question about whether he thinks the District of Columbia should have a vote in Congress. Earlier this month, GOP House leaders decided not to allow a vote on a bill that would give the District a vote in Congress and add a House seat in Utah. "I will look carefully at what Congress proposes," Bush said.

Pressed for a response about his preference on the issue, absent a bill, Bush would not budge. "That's my answer," he said. ". . . I will look and see what Congress proposes."

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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