WASHINGTON – In a pre-emptive strike before President Bush's State of the Union address, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (search) called on the administration Monday to outline an exit strategy for Iraq while his House counterpart vowed lasting opposition to Social Security benefit cuts.
Reid, D-Nevada, also said it would be a mistake to set a deadline for the withdrawal of American forces. "That's not a wise decision because it only empowers those who don't want us there," he said in a joint appearance with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) of California.
In remarks at the National Press Club, Reid said that Sunday's elections in Iraq marked "a first step in helping figure out a way that the U.S. can get out of Iraq ... We have to figure out a way to remove ourselves from there with dignity."
Pelosi spoke dismissively of the reception Bush is likely to receive from GOP lawmakers on Wednesday night in the first State of the Union address of his second term. "You really don't have to have very many communications skills if you have a couple of hundred people who will jump to their feet when you recite the ABCs," she said.
"What the president says, the president will be held accountable for," she added.
Together, she and Reid sought to lay down markers on issues likely to dominate the congressional agenda this year - Iraq and the broader war on terror, as well as Social Security (search).
"The president needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead" in Iraq, Reid said.
"Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there; so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done."
Reid, in his job for only a few weeks, credited Bush for Inaugural Day (search) remarks about spreading freedom and democracy across the globe. "But there is a gap between this president's words and his deeds," he said. "...There is a gap between saying we are a global leader and standing on the sidelines as new international institutions and alliances take shape without us."
Reid accused Bush of failing to challenge Saudi Arabia's (search) treatment of dissidents, letting China handle negotiations with North Korea's (search) missile-seeking regime, and allowing Europeans to grapple with a threat from Iran (search).
"It's time that America stood tall again as the real superpower that we are; time that we led the world on dealing with these terrible threats and building a durable peace instead of just hanging back and letting others show the way."
Reid's assessment of Bush's foreign policy represented some of the most biting remarks by a senior Democratic leader since the president won re-election last November. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry frequently criticized the president's handling of the war on terror and of conducting an arrogant foreign policy. Election-day interviews with voters indicated the public preferred Bush's leadership, but more recent surveys taken before Sunday's Iraqi elections show a decline in support for the war.
For her part, Pelosi largely restated criticism of Bush's plans for Social Security that she and other Democrats have been leveling for days.
"We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling Social Security and without allowing this administration's false declaration of a crisis justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary," she said.
Bush has called on Congress to pass legislation this year that will make Social Security permanently solvent. At the same time, he wants younger workers to have the option of diverting a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. As part of those recommendations, some administration officials have said the president may call for future retirees to receive smaller starting benefits than current law guarantees.
Pelosi said the reduction could amount to 40 percent, and added, "Any cut is unacceptable, but a cut of that magnitude is unconscionable." She also said Democrats will insist that Social Security legislation not add to the deficit, and remain fair to the middle class.
"Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind - Democrats will fight to see Social Security strengthened, not destroyed," Pelosi said.