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Bush And Democrats Prepare To Battle Over Pension Reform

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President Bush used his State of the Union address Wednesday to launch what may be the most ambitious proposal of his presidency, the revamping of the government pension system known as Social Security.

The president has made Social Security reform the top priority in his second term. Social Security is the government pension program that pays out monthly retirement and disability benefits to more than 47 million Americans.

Mr. Bush used the State of the Union address to make the case that without changes, Social Security will begin going bankrupt in just 13 years.

"I know that none of these reforms would be easy," said President Bush. "But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty because our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics."

At the heart of the president's plan to save Social Security is a proposal to allow younger workers the option of diverting some of the taxes levied to fund Social Security into private retirement accounts that could earn a higher rate of return.

But that is where opposition Democrats have focused their criticism, calling the idea a risky attempt to alter one of the most popular government programs in U.S. history.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was one of two Democrats who gave the party's official response to the president's State of the Union speech.

"The Bush plan is not really Social Security reform," said Senator Reid. "It is more like Social Security roulette. Democrats are all for giving Americans more of a say and more choices when it comes to their retirement savings. But that does not mean taking Social Security's guarantee and gambling with it."

Some public opinion polls taken in the aftermath of the president's address suggest he may have had some success in building public support for Social Security reform.

Among those impressed was this caller on the C-SPAN public affairs network.

"I believe that this problem can be solved," she said. "I have always been for some sort of privatizing."

Proposing changes to the popular Social Security program has proven politically risky in the past and even some Republicans are urging the president to do more to reach out for Democratic support.

This is Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio.

"We cannot pass a Social Security bill unless it is a bipartisan bill," said Mike DeWine. "We have to have both parties, Republicans and Democrats, to come forward and begin the debate."

But before Democrats will join with the president, they first have to be convinced that Social Security is headed for a crisis.

Some Democrats believe the Bush administration is overstating the future threat to Social Security. They cite a new report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that offers a more optimistic view of the program's financial health.

New York Congressman Gary Ackerman noted many of his fellow Democrats were vocal opponents during the president's speech.

"I saw something in the course of the speech from the members of Congress that I have not seen before in 22 years of watching these [speeches] as a member of Congress," said Gary Ackerman. "And that was that the Democrats actually were booing."

Given the Democratic opposition and even some nervousness among Republicans, many political analysts are predicting a tough political battle ahead as the president tries to move his Social Security plan through the Congress.

Thomas Mann is a close observer of Washington politics at the Brookings Institution.

"Well, I do not think he [the president] has many advantages," said Thomas Mann. "It is a tall order to reshape the most popular federal program in American history. It is also the case that our problems in health care costs are much more substantial than the Social Security shortfall. And many believe he ought to be focusing his attention there."

Complicating the president's push for Social Security reform is the historical trend that presidents tend to lose some of their political leverage near the end of their second terms.

Patrick Basham is with the Cato Institute in Washington. He says the next year or so will largely determine how successful Mr. Bush will be in making Social Security reform the centerpiece of his presidential legacy.

"And I think actually the first year of his second term is going to be the critical one," said Patrick Basham. "We are going to see a lot of activity and if he is to be successful, if he is to have that legacy down the road, I think it will be decided in 2005 rather than in 2007 or 2008."

The president insists he is up to the challenge, noting that he ran twice for the White House on a promise of reforming Social Security and won both times.

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