Bush Presses Social Security Reform

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said today that personal savings accounts -- his only prescription to date for extending Social Security -- would foster savings, making it "more likely" that younger workers would receive the retirement benefits promised them.

In sounding a new alarm over Social Security's long-term viability, Bush hailed the controversial accounts as a key pillar in his vision of an ''ownership society," in which individuals would gain greater personal control over public funds for use on health care, education, retirement and similar programs now run largely by Washington.

During an end-of-the-year news conference, the president also said he would submit early next year a ''tough" budget befitting a government facing record deficits, and made an impassioned plea for immigration reform, saying that America should not target ''good-hearted people who are coming here to work."

Since his re-election, Bush has placed Social Security atop his second-term agenda, declaring that he has two non-negotiable conditions: He has ruled out an increase in payroll taxes and a decrease in benefits to the retired and those near retirement.

But his demand that workers be allowed to divert an unspecified portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal accounts has been met with an avalanche of criticism, from Democrats as well as many non-political experts, who warn that even a partial privatization of Social Security would undermine the entire program and put investors at risk of losing their retirement nest eggs.

In heaping praise upon personal accounts during a 53-minute news conference, Bush did not claim that personal accounts would cure Social Security's long-term insolvency problems. Rather, he merely noted that such accounts were good because ''the more people who own something, the country's better off" and that the money accrued in the accounts could be passed on to succeeding generations.

"That's a positive. That's a step," Bush said.

The president added that he was "under no illusions" about the difficulty of enacting Social Security reform -- and then took a shot at his predecessors.

"I didn't duck like others have done in the past," he said.

Bush also said he continued to have "great confidence" in the vetting procedures used by the White House in checking the backgrounds of prospects for top administration jobs, even though the process apparently failed in the nomination of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Citing a problem over the legal status of an immigrant working as a nanny in his home, Kerik withdrew barely a week after Bush nominated him to succeed Tom Ridge.

The president plans to leave town Tuesday and not return until early January. He is scheduled to spend the rest of this week at Camp David, Md. and then go to his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

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