WASHINGTON – Welcoming new members of the House and Senate to the White House a day before they were to take the oath of office, President Bush (search) pledged Monday to work with Congress on an array of issues from disaster relief to Social Security reform.
Telling the nine new senators and 41 new representatives that he only has four years in which to get his goals done, Bush said he wants to get aid to tsunami-ravaged Asia and work on a variety of domestic goals.
"We've got to make sure that we win the war, we've got to make sure we support our troops. We've got to make sure we simplify the tax code (search)," Bush said at a reception for lawmakers and their spouses.
"We've got to make sure health care is more accessible and affordable for our families; got to make sure we reform the legal systems. We've got to make sure we raise standards for schools, including high schools, in America. I look forward to working with you to pass a budget that fits our times.
Top on Bush's list of priorities is Social Security reform (search). The president has said he wants younger workers to have the option to invest a portion of their contributions to the elderly retirement fund into the stock market to insure money is available when they retire.
"I know you've heard a lot of discussions about Social Security. I ask you to keep an open mind as we move forward to make sure the system works," Bush said. "Seniors have nothing to fear when they hear talk about reforming the Social Security system. Every senior in America will get their check."
The program is expected to pay out more in benefits than it collects starting in 2018. Democrats have called the coming shortfalls "manageable" and have suggested incremental adjustments to the program. They have also enlisted the help of the AARP (search), whose 35 million members are age 50 and above, are running a major advertising campaign to oppose the idea.
AARP contends the president's plan would result in gambling with retirement savings. If private accounts were allowed, the payroll taxes expected to be lost to the accounts would total about $1 trillion to $2 trillion in future payouts. Supporters of the president's plan say transition costs would total about $2 trillion but hanging on to the current system would result in losses of as much as $10 trillion.
While it's unlikely that the cost of overhauling Social Security will be reflected in the 2006 fiscal year budget the White House will submit to Congress next month, a partisan or even cross-chamber battle could build throughout the year. However, congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, said the GOP is ready to tackle the issue.
"I do think that we can pass major Social Security reform in the next 12 months. And that in and of itself is very ambitious," Frist said.
New Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, also said he wouldn't avoid taking a look at the issue.
"I'm willing to take a look at it and I think the caucus is willing to take a look at it. But we have to figure out a way to pay for it," he said.
But House Majority Whip Roy Blunt said before Congress can take on new business, it has to take care of some old unfinished business.
"The first thing up will be, I think, revisiting some of the issues from last year, energy, liability, we hope to get some of those issues out of the way quickly, and get a really fast start on whatever that top agenda topic the president puts on the table, I think it's going to be Social Security," he said.
The issue of Social Security has already drawn lines in the sand, but the president said he still is holding out hope for a newer, friendlier Congress, which would, with the White House, rise above the squabbling to get legislation passed.
Washington is "sometimes too partisan and too political. People sometimes say what's more important than the country is my politics. And my hope is, is that we can show the nation that we can come together to achieve big things for the good of the country," Bush said.
With Republicans gaining four new seats in the Senate and three in the House in November's election, Bush does not have the majorities that he would need to overcome several controversial issues, including the debate over judicial nominees, fundamental tax law reform and changes to rules for filing medical liability lawsuits.
On Wednesday, Bush travels to Collinsville in Madison County, Ill., known nationally for large monetary awards to plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. The president also will spend January preparing his State of the Union and inaugural addresses, monitoring the run-up to the Jan. 30 election in Iraq and preparing his budget blueprint for Congress' review.
The president hopes Congress will allow for more than the $350 million that he has committed to disaster relief. The president's budget, likely not to be in balance, is not expected to include billions of dollars needed for the wars in Iraq (search) and Afghanistan. Lawmakers approved $87.5 billion for those operations in the fall of 2003 and $25 billion more last spring. Bush is expected to request an additional $75 billion to $100 billion early this year.
On tax law, the president is working to appoint a bipartisan advisory panel that would make recommendations to him. Bush had said he would set up the panel by the end of 2004, but aides now say he'll do it in "coming days."
Bush also must complete filling vacancies in his 15-member Cabinet. The first nominees of his second administration will begin getting confirmations hearings this week. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales is in line to take the attorney general's post being vacated by John Ashcroft. His hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is Thursday.
But three of nine openings remain. The president is looking for a new homeland security secretary nominee after former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik backed out following several accusations about his past and an admitted problem with the immigration papers of his nanny.
Bush also needs to name someone to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (search) because he chose EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to run the Health and Human Services Department. Also vacant is the director of national intelligence, a new post, and ambassador to the United Nations, where John Danforth stepped down.
FOX News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.