- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

President Bush will argue for Social Security reform in next week’s State of the Union address and then take his case “directly to the American people,” he said yesterday.

“Congress tends to listen to the people,” he said in a White House press conference. “Right after my State of the Union, I think I’m going to four or five states to continue to address this issue.”

In contrast to last week’s lofty inaugural address about ending tyranny around the globe, Mr. Bush will use Wednesday’s State of the Union speech to lay out concrete initiatives, including partial privatization of Social Security.

“I’ll ask the House and Senate to act soon on the issue of Social Security so that we don’t pass a bankrupt system on to our children and our grandchildren,” he said.

“I’m open to good ideas from members of Congress,” the president added. “Any solution must confront the problem fully and directly by making the system permanently solvent and providing the option of personal accounts.”

Although it would cost the federal government trillions of dollars to set up such accounts, Mr. Bush flatly ruled out raising payroll taxes. His comments provoked an immediate reaction from Senate Democrats, who announced they will hold a public hearing tomorrow to oppose the president’s plan.

“The session will be the first in an aggressive new series of oversight hearings,” said a statement from the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats promised testimony from “whistleblowers” who accuse the Social Security Administration of improperly using resources to promote Mr. Bush’s reforms.

Some Republicans also have expressed doubts about Mr. Bush’s proposal to allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in private accounts.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, has suggested some ideas for Social Security reform that he says Congress should at least discuss. He has raised the idea of creating other ways to fund the system besides the payroll tax.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said party debate on Social Security isn’t cause for concern.

“It is a complex issue,” the Tennessee Republican said. “I think it’s a call for continued education.”

Also during yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Bush said he was ordering federal agencies to end the practice of paying conservative commentators to promote administration policy. Two newspaper columnists, Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, have come under fire for accepting government contracts.

“All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda,” the president said. “Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”

The president insisted that the White House was unaware of the contracts until they were exposed by the press. He said it was a “mistake” for Mr. Williams to accept the money and for the Education Department to pay him.

That answer did not satisfy Senate Democrats, who announced they would introduce legislation next week called the Stop Government Propaganda Act.

“It’s time for Congress to shut down the administration’s propaganda mill,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat.

“Propaganda had its place in Saddam’s Iraq and was a staple of the old Soviet Union, but it has no place in the United States government,” he added.

The Senate bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, is similar to legislation introduced in the House. Democrats also asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate both columnists.

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