WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) tried to increase pressure on members of Congress who are leery of his ideas to change Social Security (search) by telling them Tuesday they could be risking their jobs.
"I happen to believe people who have been elected to office who ignore problems will face a price at the ballot box," Bush said during a forum with voters who support his goal of creating private investment accounts to partly replace guaranteed benefits.
Democrats say that they, too, will make an issue of Social Security in the midterm elections. "Republicans should be worried," said Democratic National Committee (search) spokesman Jano Cabrera. "Whether Republicans are cutting benefits, raising taxes, or further exploding the budget deficit, Democrats intend to make Social Security a key issue in 2006."
Social Security is projected to start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in 2018, according to Social Security trustees but will be able to pay full promised benefits until 2042. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected the program will be solvent until 2052.
The president wants to revamp the government retirement program by letting younger workers divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal investment accounts, although he has not provided details of his proposal. Many Democrats are unwilling to give Bush a chance to cut guaranteed benefits and question how setting up personal investment accounts will fix the system's solvency problem.
Bush said he realizes some lawmakers see "too much political danger" in changing the nation's retirement system. With renewed political confidence after re-election, Bush has said he will try to give cover to those who support an overhaul and make it politically risky for those who oppose him.
"Members who will work, constructively work with us will be able to look back and say, `I did my duty. I came to Washington to be more than just a place holder,"' Bush said.
"Some are afraid to touch it, some don't want to touch it, some provide excuses not to touch it," he said. "I know, I've heard it before. But I believe that the president has a responsibility for setting the agenda." He said members of Congress have "an obligation to confront problems head on."
The White House is promoting a restructuring of the Social Security system as one of the top items of Bush's second-term agenda, along with revamping the federal tax code and limiting lawsuit damages.
In an interview with The Washington Times being published Wednesday, Bush also said he would move ahead on his proposal to grant temporary work visas to some illegal immigrants despite opposition from his conservative base.
"Look, whether or not you agree with the solution or not, we have a problem in America when you've got 8 million undocumented workers here," he told the newspaper's reporters and editors in the Oval Office interview.
Bush's town hall-style forum Tuesday was akin to some events during his re-election campaign. But those were conducted in swing states, designed to win over general election voters. This forum was held about a mile from the Capitol and targeted at lawmakers who will decide the fate of his plan.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., told reporters in a conference call that his first priority is to "prevent the Bush administration from wrecking what is really the bedrock of income security protection."
"They do it by diverting money to private accounts and by cutting guaranteed benefits," Levin said. "And that would wreck a program that's now providing secure income ... to 48 million people."
Bush's opponents have criticized him for repeatedly saying the Social Security system is in "crisis." He used the word only once Tuesday, when mocking his critics during a discussion with Utah dairy farmer Josh Wright, who is in his 20s.
"If nothing takes place, if Congress says, `Oh, don't worry, we'll just push it down the road, why do we need to deal with it, there's no crisis,' if nothing happens, and we don't start moving on it now, by the time Josh gets to retirement age, the system will be flat broke," Bush said.
"So if you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now," Bush said.
However, people their mid- to late-20s today would be able to collect around 70 percent of benefits owed when they reach full retirement age in the 2040s even if there is no change to the system, according to Social Security trustees.