- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

The White House said yesterday that Democrats “now appear to acknowledge” Social Security is a problem that must be addressed, but said top party lawmakers should spell out what they support rather than simply opposing President Bush’s plan to establish personal accounts.

As the president took his message on Social Security reform to New Jersey and Indiana, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “There are long-term challenges for Social Security we need to address, and Democrats are committed to finding bipartisan solutions to meet them.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “It is interesting that they now appear to acknowledge the need to solve this problem. I think it would be more constructive if they would talk about what they are for instead of just saying what they are against. This appears to be the first sign of acknowledging the need for a solution. Just a few weeks ago they were indicating there is no problem.”

The spokesman said it has been just over 30 days since the president broached the idea of creating personal accounts as one solution for the program, which forecasters say will start paying out more money than it collects in 2018. Americans could pay a portion of their Social Security taxes into a personal account, then manage their own money.

“I think you have seen important progress made in the last several weeks in the sense that more and more people recognize the problems facing Social Security,” Mr. McClellan said.

In two speeches yesterday, Mr. Bush did not signal that he has any intention of backing off his proposal. Still, Democrats demanded that Mr. Bush take his proposal off the table before any negotiations can begin.

In a letter to the president on Thursday, 42 Democrats said: “Given the conflicting and ambiguous reports on such a critical issue, we urge you to publicly and unambiguously announce that you reject privatized accounts funded with Social Security dollars.”

But yesterday, Mr. Reid, who was among those who signed the letter, sent out an e-mail titled: “Reid Pledges to Save Social Security.”

In the e-mail, the Nevada senator said, “Democrats recognize that Social Security faces a long-term financial challenge. We are ready to work with President Bush to strengthen Social Security, but we need to get it right.”

For his part, Mr. Bush continued to hammer home his proposal, first in Westfield, N.J., and later in South Bend, Ind.

“I’m going to keep telling people we’ve got a problem until it sinks in, because we’ve got one,” Mr. Bush said in New Jersey.

Rebutting Democratic charges that his plan would reduce benefits to seniors now in the program, the president said in Indiana: “If you’re relying upon Social Security today, nothing will change. I don’t care what the ads say, what the politicians say, you’re going to get your check.”

Back in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said Congress should act this year to confront Social Security’s problems, clarifying an earlier statement in which he said it could be days, months or a year before the issue would come before lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, who will oversee any legislation, suggested that the controversy around Mr. Bush’s call for personal retirement accounts was giving Democrats an excuse to ignore Social Security’s serious financial problems.

“Maybe we ought to focus on the solvency and bring people to the table just over what do you do for the solvency,” the Iowa Republican said.

But minority leaders continued to criticized Mr. Bush, this time for defining personal accounts as “an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you.”

“The president’s comments today must mean one of three things: he has admitted defeats and abandoned his plan to cut benefits and privatize Social Security; he is deliberately misleading the American people about the real impact of his plan; or he is very confused about how his plan works,” the senator said. “Either way, the president is off to a bad start. He owes the American people honest answers on whether he wants to reform Social Security or privatize it.”

Both sides have kicked off nationwide tours to get out their messages. Mr. Reid plans a four-city tour this weekend with other Senate Democrats. The White House is off on an even bigger blitz: The president plans to visit 29 states over the next two months, and other senior administration officials are expected to hit the road soon.

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