WASHINGTON – Touting President Bush's proposal to substantially overhaul Social Security (search) by creating private investment accounts, Treasury Secretary John Snow on Friday vowed to "take the case to the American people."
"We won't get good success ... in the Congress until the issue is well understood abroad in the land," said Snow, talking to reporters after a White House meeting on a separate initiative to simplify the U.S. tax code.
Snow said there would be town hall meetings, presidential speeches — including the topic being a major piece of Bush's inaugural and State of the Union addresses — and travel by administration officials. Bush's plan has encountered opposition from Democrats, the AARP and even some in his own party.
Snow also said that he is going to Wall Street next week, for instance. The administration has been dispatching officials to New York to address concerns in the financial industry about borrowing $1 trillion or more to help fund the overhaul to make way for personal investment accounts (search).
"As we get those fundamental facts understood, we'll build broad-based support for the changes that are called for," Snow said.
Bush wants to remake Social Security by letting workers divert some of their payroll taxes (search) from the retirement system into personal investment accounts. He will make a speech next week to retirees and younger workers in an attempt to sell the plan by showing how people could benefit.
Bush met Thursday at the White House with the lawmakers.
"It was really just an opportunity to discuss what the strategy needed to be to get this done and the president reiterated his commitment to lead this effort," said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking Republican in the House.
But he still must persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to implement the most far-reaching changes to the system since its creation during the Great Depression. Though Republicans have increased their majority in both houses, changes would require 60 votes in the Senate.
Underscoring that difficulty, Sen. Arlen Specter, a prominent Republican moderate, has expressed his opposition to cuts in promised Social Security benefits for future retirees.
"I strongly oppose this approach," Specter says in a letter on his official Web site. The Pennsylvania Republican did not state a position on investment accounts.
To pay for investment accounts and make the system solvent, the White House is focusing on a plan that would change how future benefits are calculated by tying them to the inflation rate instead of wages over a person's lifetime. That could mean cuts in future promised benefits, since wages generally grow faster than inflation. The plan relies on investment accounts to make up the income difference.
Democrats have made clear they intend to campaign in 2006 against Republicans who vote for it.
"Democrats believe that any proposals to reform Social Security must not add to the deficit, must not harm the middle class and must not cut guaranteed benefits," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
There is particular political concern among House Republicans, all of whose seats will be on the ballot next year. As a result, several officials said congressional leaders have discussed having the Senate act first on Social Security legislation.
There also is dissent in the party about the best approach. A faction of Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, oppose cutting future promised benefits to help close the system's long-term financing gap, which the administration is leaning toward.
Bush told his audience Thursday he has not made final decisions on key policy questions, according to several Republican officials familiar with the meeting.
Some supporters want to let workers invest their entire payroll taxes — 6.2 percent — in accounts, which is larger than the White House is leaning toward. The administration also faces opposition from lawmakers and other supporters who object to borrowing to pay for the accounts.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had "a very good discussion" with GOP congressional leaders. "The president believes this is one of the biggest priorities and biggest challenges facing the American people," he said. "And he is committed to ... solving this problem in a bipartisan way."
The administration is hoping to build public support for the overhaul by "establishing an important premise: the current system is heading for an iceberg," according to a White House e-mail this week.
"That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness; it is the precondition to authentic reform," said the e-mail, written by Peter Wehner, a deputy to Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove.
Democrats accuse the White House of using scare tactics to muscle through what will be a costly overhaul.
Social Security is projected to start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in 2018, according to Social Security trustees. It can pay full promised benefits until 2042. Then, it can cover about 73 percent of promised benefits. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts solvency until 2052.