White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. yesterday dampened speculation that the historic Republican gains in Congress achieved during last week's midterm elections would jumpstart administration plans to partially privatize Social Security, saying that major changes in the program are unlikely before the 2004 presidential elections.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Card said the administration's top legislative goal for the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress is winning approval for President Bush's version of a Department of Homeland Security and passing a bill that would provide terrorism insurance to businesses. Beyond that, he said, the White House is focused on the potential war with Iraq and stimulating the flagging economy.
Given those priorities, changes to Social Security will have to wait, Card said. "It's important that we have a debate about Social Security reform. It is imperative that it comes," Card said, adding, "I'm not sure it can happen next year." Given the political volatility of Social Security, many analysts assume it is unlikely Congress would act on any proposal to change the program before the 2004 elections.
A proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of the Social Security taxes in private investments was a centerpiece of Bush's domestic agenda during his 2000 campaign. But the idea has been sidetracked by staunch opposition among congressional Democrats and a poorly performing stock market.
By winning a narrow majority in the Senate and expanding their control of the House, congressional Republicans would be in a position to enact changes to Social Security, some analysts thought. But Card said that is not likely. "We know that people get their minds made up before they understand the facts, and we think there should be more debate," Card said.
Meanwhile, administration officials warned yesterday that they will have "zero tolerance" for anything other than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's full compliance with the tough new weapons inspections regime approved last week by the United Nations Security Council.
"The next material breach by Saddam Hussein has got to have serious consequences. I think that is very clear what that may mean," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on "Fox News Sunday." "We do not need to waste the world's time with another game of cat and mouse."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," added that the United States remains committed to enforcing any noncompliance with the U.N. resolution, whether the world body explicitly authorizes a war with Iraq.
"If [Hussein] doesn't comply this time, we are going to ask the U.N. to give authorization for all necessary means," Powell said. "If the U.N. isn't willing to do that, the United States, with like-minded nations, will go and disarm him forcefully."
Under the U.N. resolution approved Friday, Iraq has one week to acknowledge the terms and begin admitting weapons inspectors by Nov. 18. In early December, the Iraqi regime must disclose all of its efforts to develop and stockpile chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. If Iraq's leaders fail to meet those deadlines, administration officials have made it clear the country will face "serious consequences."
The tough talk on Iraq came after administration officials said they have settled on a war plan in case the latest round of weapons inspections fail. Senior military officials have said the plan envisions as many as 250,000 U.S. and allied troops taking part in an effort to seize most of Iraq and encircle Baghdad after a brief but intense air campaign.
"I think Saddam Hussein understands, and should understand, the resolve of the United States, the resolve of the allies and now the resolve of the United Nations to make certain that he is disarmed," Rice said on ABC's "This Week."