WASHINGTON – The day after President Bush's State of the Union (search) speech, key Democrats in Congress were already criticizing Bush's proposal for overhauling Social Security and his plans for American's future involvement in Iraq.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) suggested Thursday that Bush's calling Social Security a "crisis" stems from his inability to rein in spending and forcing a deficit that endangers Social Security's solvency.
"This is a crisis of his own creation, this is a crisis of his own making so he can have his pre-ordained idea about privatization — which undermines Social Security, which turns a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble," Pelosi, D-Calif., said during a rally in Washington, D.C. Others at the event, mostly women, toted signs saying "It's not wise to privatize."
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) led the counterattack Wednesday night, delivering a Democratic response that party members are hoping will fuel a turnabout from their election setbacks last fall.
But even stalwart Democrats agree that Social Security needs changes to be able to continue to provide for retirees in the middle of this century. However, all sides have different beliefs on what those changes should be.
"[Social Security] will not have enough money to meet the guaranteed benefits that are on the table," Democratic New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine (search) told FOX News on Thursday. "Something has to be done."
A former CEO of the investment bank Goldman Sachs who has co-authored several financial bills in the Senate, Corzine said private investment accounts like the ones the president is proposing carry risk, and that risk has to be assessed when deciding how to fix Social Security.
"What we need to do is make sure there's enough money in the Social Security trust fund without increasing the risk to maintain the guaranteed benefits," Corzine told FOX News. "I believe in people investing. We have to increase investment in the United States. I just don't think we ought to be increasing risk in Social Security."
He also said the cost of paying for the plan would mean more debt burden on younger people, the ones the plan is supposed to help.
But supporters of the plan, including Treasury Secretary John Snow (search), told FOX News on Thursday that the voluntary investment accounts will mean "people will have a chance to earn a much greater return than otherwise would be the case, and build a stronger retirement." Snow said people will have the choice to invest some of their retirement money in diversified portfolios, which carry greater risk but tend to perform better over long periods of time than the more conservative government investments.
"The idea here is that Social Security has made promises that it can't keep. ... The benefits will be reduced very significantly," Snow said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton (search) of Minnesota argued, however, that the president's Social Security proposal cuts existing benefits. He said it's an exaggeration to characterize the current system as going "bankrupt."
"I read the briefing ... It's across-the-board benefit cuts for retirees," Dayton said on FOX News. "The future should not be political ideologies but financial realities. The president's plan ... didn't talk about the fine print."
But because "there's more money going out than coming in," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (search), some of the president's proposals are worth looking at.
"Let's see if we can find common ground," Lott, R-Miss., told FOX News.
Bush's plan to offer private investment options has elements of one introduced by President Bill Clinton, who also thought people should have the choice to invest some of their retirement funds. That legislation died in Congress.
Some Democrats and pundits have blasted the president's idea because they say he has squandered the surplus earmarked for Social Security left by the Clinton administration and so the conundrum he has spoken about is partly his doing.
But some Republicans are accusing Democrats of playing the "no" game.
"They don't have a positive agenda. All they can do is stand by and criticize and make fun of the president," complained Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (search) of Utah on FOX News on Thursday. "But I expect to find some really good Democrats to work with on this issue. ... If we don't do what is right now, we're going to have problems with the young people — they won't have the benefit of Social Security."
The private accounts would likely mean greater returns, but worries exist over how to pay for the makeover and whether it will mean people will end up paying back the money they invest to cover the deficit the program will create.
"People don't understand that they're going to end up paying that back plus interest, that same percent or so that you earn on government bonds in the interim. I think ... people will say we're giving up a guaranteed benefit for greater risk and we're going to have to pay back what we've
taken out? I don't think that sounds like a good deal to the individual," Corzine said.
Reid, D-Nev., said Bush should join Democrats in fighting for better job training, improved education and more affordable health care. Instead, he said, Bush has offered "the same old ideology."
Such issues "are about old-fashioned moral values that don't get talked about much in Washington," Reid said.
The comments seemed to underscore Democratic attempts to attract the segment of Americans who have told pollsters that morality is a major factor in how they vote.
House Democrats invited about 15 constituents — including senior citizens — to the House galleries as a symbol of their opposition to Bush's Social Security plans. Democrats also planned a news conference Thursday at a memorial to Social Security's father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Reaching out to Hispanics, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., delivered a Spanish-language response to Bush's address Wednesday night.
With the ouster of one of the most visible Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., after the Nov. 2 election, the lower-profile Pelosi and Reid are among the party's leaders forced to consider the best course to help Democrats 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."
Democrats Don't Offer 'Counterplan' for Iraq
The Democrats also used the Social Security issue to appeal to U.S. troops. Pelosi spoke of having met with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and wounded soldiers in military hospitals.
"They remind us of our responsibility to build a future worthy of their sacrifice," she said.
Pelosi and other Democrats have said that Bush needs to outline his plans for the future of Iraq.
"We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force," said Pelosi in the televised response she delivered after Bush's remarks.
"Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos," Pelosi said. "We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq."
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Bush "did not mention how many more lives will be lost because we still have no timetable for leaving Iraq."
The man whom Bush defeated last November, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush must do more to unite Iraqis and persuade other nations to help train an Iraqi security force.
"The greatest tribute to the memory of the fallen is an exit strategy called success," Kerry said.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the president does have an exit strategy — first, train the Iraqi security forces, then make sure a government is elected, then leave.
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.