Tuesday, December 13, 2005

President Bush will again pursue Social Security reform next year and has been frustrated by Democrats’ unwillingness to address ensuring the entitlement’s long-term viability, his chief economic adviser said yesterday.

“This president is not going to give up on Social Security,” said Allan Hubbard, director of the president’s National Economic Council.

White House aides said Mr. Bush was stung by his failure to enact Social Security reform this year — after he made it his top legislative priority — and will not decide how much political capital to devote to the issue until he gets closer to next month’s State of the Union address.

Democrats relish the idea that the president might ask congressional Republicans up for re-election to vote to cut retirement benefits and raise withholding taxes.

“God bless him,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said upon hearing that Mr. Bush once again will go on the Social Security-reform offensive. “To quote the president, ‘Bring it on.’”

Republicans, mystified at the White House’s Social Security strategy earlier this year, do not look forward to a repeat performance.

“You have to have a better sales pitch … if you expect members of Congress to support it,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

In his 2004 re-election campaign, Mr. Bush said he would make reforming the Roosevelt-era federal retirement scheme the centerpiece of his second term. The Social Security system faces the prospect of too few workers supporting too many retirees.

The unfunded Social Security liability is estimated to total $4 trillion to $5 trillion in the next 75 years, while Medicare’s unfunded liability is expected to be six or seven times that — or about $30 trillion over the same period, Mr. Hubbard said.

“The president was frustrated by the fact that the Democrats were unwilling to address Social Security,” Mr. Hubbard said yesterday, “and I can guarantee as long as he is in office, Social Security will be a big concern of his, along with the huge entitlements” under Medicare and other programs.

However, this year, the more the president elaborated on Social Security’s unfunded liability problem and his proposed fix, the more Americans gave reform a thumbs down in national polls.

“The polls are a lot less important to this president than addressing the big problems that face America — that’s why Social Security was front and center last year,” Mr. Hubbard said.

“Everybody agrees Social Security is a big problem, but it’s been said we mishandled it,” Mr. Hubbard said yesterday. “No matter what we had done that was consistent with our principles, I don’t think the Democrats would have” come to the table.

Yesterday, Mr. Hoyer insisted that lawmakers in his party do want to solve the Social Security problem and are willing to sit down with Mr. Bush, but only if the president agrees to set aside his “partisan” plan.

If Mr. Bush “continues to pursue a partisan solution,” Mr. Hoyer said, Democrats will oppose it, and “we predict the American people will continue to oppose it as well.”

• Bill Sammon and Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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