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Bush Revives Push to Restructure Social Security

Times Staff Writer

With his mother by his side, President Bush on Friday renewed his drive to restructure Social Security and assured seniors that the proposal wouldn’t affect their benefits.

In remarks to several thousand people packed into an auditorium here, Bush vowed to continue pushing for his initiative. He urged young people to engage in the debate because, he said, their retirement security would depend on a fundamental restructuring of Social Security.

Barbara Bush said her son was determined to tread where other politicians dared not. “It’s a political nightmare to talk about Social Security,” the former first lady said. “And he’s got the guts to do it. So I’m for it.”

But the schedule for legislative action on the president’s top domestic priority has slipped to September amid signs that many Republican lawmakers remain wary of taking on what is often called “the third rail” of American politics.

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The chairmen of the two key committees in the Senate and the House have labored mightily at producing a majority on their panels to take action, so far without success. Still, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), head of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have said they would resume their efforts after the congressional summer recess.

In his remarks on Social Security, Bush repeatedly assured those over 55 that their benefits would not change under his proposal. And he urged young workers to support his drive, saying that they were paying into “a broken system” that would not be able to deliver on the promised benefits unless Congress acted. The centerpiece of Bush’s initiative is a plan to allow those under 55 to divert a percentage of their payroll deductions into personal savings accounts -- an approach that has won no Democratic support and has engendered skepticism among some Republicans.

Critics say personal accounts do nothing to solve Social Security’s long-term insolvency, a fact that the White House has acknowledged. But Bush promoted his plan as contributing to his broad vision of an “ownership society” in which citizens had more direct control of their retirement assets.

The president urged those who differed with his prescription to propose their own solutions. “If they’ve got a better idea, bring them forward,” he said.

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Referring to Democrats who have criticized Bush’s plan without offering alternative ideas, Bush urged lawmakers to “stop playing partisan politics” with the issue. “It’s time for us to address this problem head-on.”

It was Bush’s first Social Security event since June 23, when he spoke about the issue at a suburban Maryland high school.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who traveled with the president to Friday’s event, said afterward that Bush had “some more selling to do” before Congress was likely to go along with his proposal.

“One thing that’s not going to happen,” Bush said, “is me dropping the subject.”

Before his formal appearance, Bush visited a neighborhood center where a handful of seniors were being trained to help sign up low-income Medicare recipients for a prescription drug benefit scheduled to become available to all seniors in 2006.

Starting in January, Medicare recipients are to have the option of enrolling in a program that covers 95% of their prescription medications once they have spent $3,600 of their own money each year.

Low-income seniors -- about one-third of all Medicare recipients -- will be eligible for this benefit without premiums, deductibles or gaps in coverage, according to the White House.

Before leaving Atlanta, the president met in private with family members of a soldier killed in Iraq, one White House aide said.

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Bush planned to spend the weekend at Camp David.


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