WASHINGTON – President Bush's 60-day nationwide road show launched to raise support for his drive to create private Social Security (search) investment accounts is over, but he has no plans to stop traveling the country or pitching his ideas.
For one thing to talk up, Bush has his new proposal to fix most of Social Security's long-term fiscal problems by cutting benefits now promised to future retirees in all but the lowest income brackets.
He also still has significant work to do on his personal accounts proposal, which he says would encourage individual ownership and offer the prospect of better returns for retirees.
Despite making that argument for months, recent polls have found public support declining, with a majority now opposing that approach. Democrats in Congress remain nearly unanimous against it. And with even some Republicans wary, there has been little progress legislatively.
Still, the president claimed progress Saturday.
"We have entered a new phase in this discussion," he said in his weekly radio address.
On Tuesday, Bush plans a stop at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., to continue the Social Security conversation. It will mark the 24th state in which he has held Social Security events since he put the issue atop his domestic agenda in his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.
Official Social Security estimates predict that the costs of paying out benefits will begin to exceed income from payroll taxes in 2017, and that the program's trust fund will be entirely depleted in 2041. At that point, the government would be obliged to cut benefits for all recipients in order to continue to disburse Social Security checks unless some action is taken earlier to address the shortfall.
Bush unveiled his idea for bridging Social Security's coming fiscal gap at a news conference Thursday, saying he supports an approach that would tilt the system conference more toward lower-income retirees.
Up to then, he had focused solely on asking lawmakers to find a permanent fix to the system's fiscal ills and trying to sell his plan to allow younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes (search) into private accounts.
Now, Bush says he also supports a change in the way annual benefit increases are calculated, so that future Social Security checks would increase at the rate planned under current law for the lowest-income retirees but not for everyone else.
As a result, future middle- and upper-income retirees would get checks no smaller than current recipients' benefits. That, however, would be less than what the system is now promising for the future because their benefits would rise more slowly.
The president has not said, either at his news conference or in an appearance Friday in suburban Falls Church, Va., how much lower future checks would be, nor what income cutoff he has in mind.
He did say that making that radical change in the government retirement system would erase about 70 percent of Social Security's long-term deficit.
Democrats, who have said they are willing to work with Bush on Social Security's solvency problems as soon as he drops his call for personal accounts, cried foul.
"Benefits would be cut for all workers whose annual earnings are more than $20,000 a year," Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee estimated.
House Republicans, meanwhile, say they are ready to have Social Security legislation in committee by June. "It won't just be a Social Security bill. It will be a retirement bill," said Rep. Bill Thomas (search), R-Calif., the Ways and Means chairman.
The Senate Finance Committee, which has begun to hold hearings, is expected to consider legislation by the end of July.
"As we fix Social Security we have a duty to direct extra help to those most in need, and make Social Security a better deal for younger workers," Bush said. "I'm confident that by working together, we will find a solution that will renew the promise of Social Security for the 21st century."