Los Angeles Times

Bush Hits The Road For Social Security

President to visit Westfield tomorrow

Los Angeles Times — Thursday, March 3, 2005

BY WARREN VIETH AND RICHARD SIMON
LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration yesterday announced a 60-day, 60-stop barnstorming tour, including a stop by President Bush in New Jersey tomorrow, to promote the president's plan for overhauling Social Security, as Republican lawmakers and their allies bickered over how to win Democratic and public support for the president's initiative without gutting it.

Bush, who has already made several campaign-style appearances around the country to promote his plan, is to begin a new round of trips with visits to New Jersey and Indiana. He is scheduled to stop in Westfield tomorrow for what is being billed as a "conversation on strengthening Social Security" with an audience of about 1,500 supporters, then fly to a similar event at Notre Dame University.

The "scope and scale goes way beyond anything we have done," said Treasury Secretary John Snow, who heads to Arkansas today.

Sen. Charles E. Grassle (R-Iowa), chairman of the committee that would write a Social Security bill, suggested yesterday that it might be better to take private accounts – the centerpiece of Bush's plan – off the table for the time being to open the door to talks with Democrats about a possible compromise on shoring up the finances of the retirement system.

Saying that private accounts are not the cure-all for solving the long-term financial problems facing Social Security, Grassley said: "Maybe we ought to focus on solvency and bring people to the table just over what do you do for the solvency."

Snow appeared to be open to alternatives to Bush's proposal for private accounts. Asked if the administration would consider a plan that does not include the accounts, he told reporters: "Everything is on the table."

The comments came as Republicans sought a way to build momentum for Bush's plan, which has failed to win an endorsement from any prominent Democratic lawmaker and is losing support in some public opinion surveys despite weeks of public campaigning by the president.

Many Republican lawmakers who used last week's recess to talk about Social Security with constituents reported hearing opposition or only tepid support for Bush's plan.

In a possible boost for the president, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress yesterday to move quickly to shore up Social Security's likely long-term financing gap. That gap is expected because of the coming wave of Baby Boom retirees and is estimated to reach $3.7 trillion over 75 years.

"I fear that we may have already committed more physical resources to the Baby Boom generation in its retirement years than our economy has the capacity to deliver," Greenspan told the House Budget Committee. "If existing promises need to be changed, those changes should be made sooner rather than later."

Bush has also sought to build a sense of urgency around the need to restructure Social Security. Under his proposal, workers would be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private stock and bond accounts, which the president says would allow them to earn more in retirement than the current system can offer.

Bush says the accounts on their own would not address the future funding shortfall facing Social Security, but that they should be part of a broader discussion of fixes that might include benefit cuts.

Democrats and other critics say private accounts would force the government to borrow more than $1 trillion to replace the diverted tax money, while doing nothing to improve the system's future shortfall. A number of Republican lawmakers fear that embracing Bush's plan would spark a voter backlash, especially among seniors.

According to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the percentage of Americans who say they favor private accounts has tumbled to 46 percent from 54 percent in December and from 58 percent last September.

Opposition was higher among those who had heard a lot about Bush's plan than among those who were less familiar with it. The survey of 1,502 adults was conducted Feb. 16-21 and had a margin of sample error of 3 percentage points.

It was the third recent poll to show a decline in support for Bush's plan.

In an attempt to sway opinion, Bush will travel at least one day a week to campaign for his plan until May 1, Snow said yesterday. The Treasury secretary said he would hit the road for at least two days a week. Other administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, will participate in the tour, officials said.

Bush is scheduled to appear at the Westfield Armory tomorrow at 11 a.m. to discuss Social Security with an invited audience. Tickets were being distributed by the White House and through the offices of Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-7th Dist.) and area Chambers of Commerce.

Opponents of Bush's proposals, including New Jersey Citizen Action and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.), are planning a protest rally before Bush speaks. Pallone has said he plans to bring a busload of senior citizens to Westfield to make their objections known. Staci Berger, political director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said yesterday hundreds of people have contacted the group asking about participating in the protest.

Bush said during an appearance in Arnold, Md., "I'm going to travel this country a lot talking about the issue of Social Security. Every week I'm going to be out talking about the problem, assuring seniors that nothing will change, and reminding young Americans that they need to write the Congress, the senators and the House of Representatives and demand action."

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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