WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats hit President Bush on Wednesday for his Iraq policies and planned Social Security (search) overhaul, hoping a vigorous response to his State of the Union speech will fuel a turnabout from their election setbacks last fall.
The prime-time address offered center stage to the president. Democrats, though, were hoping their response would cast them as a moderate but energetic alternative to Bush and the Republicans who control Congress.
"We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), according to excerpts of the televised response she was to deliver after Bush's remarks.
"Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), who was sharing the response with Pelosi, said Bush's Social Security plans sound more like "Social Security roulette" than reform.
"Democrats are all for giving Americans more of a say and more choices when it comes to their retirement savings. But that doesn't mean taking Social Security's guarantee and gambling with it. And that's coming from a senator who represents Las Vegas," said Reid, D-Nev., according to excerpts of his comments.
In addition to their leaders' televised response, House Democrats invited about 15 constituents -- including senior citizens -- to the House galleries to demonstrate their opposition to Bush's Social Security plans. They also planned a news conference Thursday at a memorial to Social Security's father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (search).
Reaching out to Hispanics, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., were delivering a Spanish-language response to Bush's address Wednesday night.
Besides re-electing Bush, the Nov. 2 voting increased the small but decisive majorities Republicans hold in Congress. The GOP also ousted one of the most visible Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
That has left the lower-profile Pelosi and Reid among the party's leaders and forced Democrats to ponder what course will best help them regain House and Senate seats.
Many in the party think Bush has given Democrats a golden opportunity with his idea of letting beneficiaries divert some Social Security revenues to new personal investment accounts, and borrowing money to pay the extra costs.
"The president neither has the mandate he thinks he has, or a majority to make policy" because of worries by moderate Republicans, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. "He's making a mistake on both, which is overreaching."
Even so, Democrats were volunteering few detailed alternatives to Bush proposals. Reid told reporters that without a specific White House blueprint for overhauling Social Security, he saw no need for Democrats to offer "a counterplan to nothing."
In the excerpts of their responses, Reid and Pelosi accused Bush of failing to develop a plan for protecting the country from terrorism and said Democrats wanted more health, education and job training benefits for veterans.
Bush was planning a two-day campaign-style swing, beginning Thursday, to sell his Social Security plan in states with Democratic senators from whom he hopes he can win support.