As President Bush prepared to deliver a detailed sales pitch for Social Security restructuring in tonight’s State of the Union address, Senate Democrats suggested Tuesday that they had enough votes to block the kind of overhaul he was seeking.
White House officials said Bush’s comments on Social Security would be his most specific yet and would receive equal billing with Iraq and other foreign policy concerns in the nationally televised address that starts at 6 p.m. PST.
Even before the president could put the final touches on a speech that had gone through 17 drafts by Tuesday afternoon, the leader of the Senate’s Democrats declared his colleagues “united” in opposing Bush’s proposal to let younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts they would control.
“President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security,” Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters after a Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday morning. “It will not happen. The sooner he comes to that realization, the better off we are.”
Although one Senate Democrat said he had not yet made up his mind, Reid expressed confidence that none would back the president’s plan.
That opposition alone would appear sufficient to doom Bush’s plan in the Senate. It takes 60 senators to break a filibuster and force a vote on a bill; Republicans number 55 in the chamber.
Even if the president ultimately managed to strike some kind of bargain on the structure of private accounts, Reid’s comments on the eve of the address illustrated the difficulty Bush faced in winning support for his Social Security initiative.
The clash came as both sides stepped up the battle to rally public support to their sides on an issue with huge economic, ideological and political ramifications.
Bush has put Social Security restructuring at the top of his second-term domestic agenda. Democrats have declared their determination to preserve the structure of the New Deal retirement program.
So far, the president has declined to endorse a specific plan, saying only that he wanted to address Social Security’s long-term financial shortfall without raising payroll taxes or changing benefits for existing retirees, and that personal accounts must be part of the package.
But in tonight’s speech, “he will offer details of how to move this debate forward,” said a senior administration official who declined to be identified on grounds that the White House wanted to keep the focus on Bush.
The official indicated that Bush would be more forthcoming about the need to reduce benefits for future retirees to bridge the gap between payroll tax collections and payouts promised under current law as well as to offset the cost of private accounts.
The president “fully recognizes that to permanently fix Social Security is going to require action beyond just personal accounts,” the official said.
After the speech, Bush plans to hold campaign-style events in five states that voted for him last year but have Democratic senators. By rallying public support in such states, he hopes to generate pressure on their Democratic lawmakers to back his plan.
Treasury Secretary John W. Snow met Tuesday with two such Democrats, Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana. Bush plans to visit both states this week, and he has invited Conrad to fly with him.
At the same time, opponents of private accounts began running TV ads Tuesday in the districts of three congressmen, including a Democratic sponsor of legislation to establish private investment accounts.
The ads, paid for by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org., said Bush’s proposal would cut Social Security benefits and urged constituents to call their representatives in Congress and tell them: “No, George Bush can’t cut Social Security.”
The ads began airing in the districts of Reps. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.). Boyd joined Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday in introducing a measure that would establish private investment accounts. Boyd is the only Democrat to sponsor such legislation.
“We have one more Democrat in the House supporting us than they do in the Senate,” Kolbe joked.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), whose state also will be visited by Bush this week, said she hoped Senate Democrats would act in unison to prevent the diversion of Social Security taxes to private investment accounts.
“It’s critical for what we stand for,” Lincoln said.
Reid told reporters he had received personal commitments from all Senate Democrats to oppose private accounts in Social Security. He added that one or two members might try “to keep their powder dry” by not declaring their opposition publicly at this point.
The one Senate Democrat who remained uncommitted on the issue was Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
“I’m not going to take a position on anything until I see what the president has laid out,” said Nelson, who will meet with Bush when the president visits Nebraska on Friday for a “town hall” meeting on Social Security.
In the past, Nelson has expressed concern that the diversion of worker payroll taxes from Social Security into private accounts could force the government to cut benefits or go deeper into debt.
Republicans cautioned that the battle for public opinion was just beginning.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose panel will write Social Security legislation, said Democrats might change their positions once Americans better understood the problems facing the retirement system.
White House officials said Bush would devote the first half of tonight’s address to domestic issues, with Social Security as the centerpiece.
He will also discuss tax simplification, legal reform, judicial appointments, immigration law, education and job training, officials said.
In addition, they said, the president will call on lawmakers to join him in passing an austere budget that begins to reduce the growing deficits of recent years.
The administration received bad news on the fiscal front Tuesday from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The agency estimated that Bush’s efforts to make his past tax cuts permanent and divert some Social Security revenue to private accounts could boost the budget deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.
The second half of Bush’s speech will be devoted to foreign policy, including the aftermath of Sunday’s election in Iraq and the prospects for advancing the Middle East peace process following last month’s Palestinian election.
Officials said Bush would not propose a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq but that he would discuss efforts to prepare Iraqi security forces to gradually assume responsibility for battling insurgents and restoring stability to the country.
Times staff writers Mary Curtius, Ronald Brownstein and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.