- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

TUCSON, Ariz. — President Bush yesterday touted overhauling Social Security in the 17th state since his inauguration, as a conservative group expressed fear the administration would capitulate to Democrats on the role of private investment accounts.

Mr. Bush, however, gave no indication yesterday he would withdraw his call for such accounts for younger workers to help bolster the federal retirement system.

“All ideas are on the table except raising the income-tax rate,” Mr. Bush said, adding that he wants to expand the “401(k) culture in America.”

“A lot of Democrats thought that was a good idea in the past, and it ought to be on the table,” he told a friendly audience of about 1,500 people at the Tucson Convention Center with former presidential rival Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, at his side.

In Washington, the chief economist for a conservative interest group said yesterday in a memo to supporters that he perceives “the smoldering smell of a sellout on personal retirement accounts.”

Larry Hunter of the Free Enterprise Fund, in a memo widely distributed to conservatives, decried the talk on Capitol Hill about tax increases, benefit cuts and a separate add-on program of private accounts to address the program’s pending insolvency.

“What a sad saga for personal retirement accounts,” Mr. Hunter wrote. “In a couple of short months, the lynchpin of Bush’s ‘ownership society’ has gone from the solution to the problem, to ‘insufficient’ to solve the problem, to ‘off the table completely.’”

Mr. Bush has proposed allowing younger workers to invest a small portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts as a way to generate more retirement income. The proposal would not affect those 55 or older.

But Democrats and the powerful AARP, which boasts 35 million members age 50 and over, have united in opposition to Mr. Bush’s idea, arguing it would weaken the system and would not prevent its insolvency.

Sen. Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Democrat who built his fortune in the stock market, has worried that allowing people to invest in even the conservative bond and stock funds envisioned by Mr. Bush would be too risky.

Mr. Bush said that if federal workers, including members of Congress, are allowed to make such investments in an existing program, so should everyone else.

“They say that only certain people can invest,” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t believe that.”

Mr. McCain, a key ally for the president on this issue, urged his congressional colleagues to “have a battle of ideas so we can build a consensus.”

“I say to our Democratic friends, let’s come to the table and save Social Security for future generations,” Mr. McCain said. “The door is open to the White House and on the other side of aisle. We must do this together.”

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