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Bush Invites Critics to Show, Tell

Times Staff Writer

President Bush tried Wednesday to persuade congressional skeptics to back his approach to Social Security restructuring and invited critics to join him at the negotiating table.

Bush took his Social Security campaign to the home state of Republican Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, who has expressed doubts about the prospects of passing restructuring legislation this year.

Midway through a 60-day barnstorming tour to promote his plan for letting younger workers divert part of their payroll taxes into personal investment accounts, Bush said lawmakers who tried to avoid dealing with Social Security might be held accountable by constituents.

“There’s a political price for not getting involved in the process.... There’s a political price for saying it’s not a problem,” Bush said during a radio interview conducted in a restaurant booth in Cedar Rapids, seated with Grassley.

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Later, Grassley said he supported the president’s personal account plan but still thought that the prospects of passing it this year were no better than 50-50.

“But remember, I would have been more pessimistic two months ago,” said Grassley, whose committee would handle any Social Security legislation in the Senate. “This was on nobody’s radar screen two months ago. It’s on everybody’s radar screen now.”

During a talk-show-style event at a nearby community college, Bush appealed to opponents of his approach to enter into negotiations on legislation to close Social Security’s long-term funding gap.

“If you’ve got a good idea, we expect you to be at the table,” he said.

“I expect you to bring it forward,” he said, “but more importantly, the American people expect you to bring it forward.... We want to listen to good ideas.”

Many Democrats have said they want to work with Bush to shore up the shaky finances of Social Security, but only if the president takes his personal account plan off the table first.

Although Bush did not name names, his invitation also appeared to be aimed at AARP, the 35-million-member seniors organization that is conducting an aggressive campaign to oppose Bush’s proposal for personal accounts.

Under Bush’s plan, workers born in 1950 or later would be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into privately owned accounts containing stock and bond mutual funds. In exchange, their traditional Social Security benefits would be reduced.

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Bush acknowledged that personal accounts would not close a projected long-term funding shortfall, estimated at $4 trillion over 75 years, caused by the looming retirements of the baby boom generation and other demographic shifts.

“This doesn’t fix the system permanently,” Bush said of his personal account proposal. “But it makes the system a better deal for younger workers.”

Most who have studied Social Security say it will take benefit reductions, tax increases or other changes to shore up Social Security’s finances. Bush has not yet advocated a specific formula.

AARP officials countered Bush’s Iowa appearances with their own events, including rallies, a news conference and anti-privatization advertisements. The organization released results from a recent poll showing that 59% of AARP members opposed the kind of personal accounts favored by Bush.

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“AARP members not only dislike private accounts that drain funds from Social Security, they really dislike them,” the group’s research director, Jeff Love, said in a prepared statement.

Accompanying Bush on the return trip from Iowa was Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), a moderate who has not taken a position on the president’s personal account plan. White House officials have said Bush’s road show is designed in part to demonstrate to wary lawmakers that local voters are interested in restructuring.

Leach attended the community college event along with House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), another key player in the Social Security debate. Nussle is said to be considering running for governor of Iowa.

In his appearances across the country, Bush is attempting to deliver two basic messages: Current retirees and those nearing retirement would not be affected by his restructuring plan, and personal accounts would help younger workers accumulate a nest egg to offset inevitable cuts in traditional Social Security benefits.

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“A younger worker, whether they live in a blue state or a red state, ought to be wondering whether or not the Congress has got the will necessary to fix this problem,” Bush said in his radio interview. “Because if we don’t, the system starts going into the red, negative, in 2017.”

Administration projections show that in that year, it would be necessary to begin drawing on reserves because the benefit payouts would begin to exceed payroll tax collections.

Recent polls suggest Bush’s Social Security campaign is producing mixed results. More Americans now believe the retirement system is facing a funding squeeze, and some surveys show majorities say workers should be able to open personal accounts.

But support drops considerably when people are told that personal accounts could be accompanied by benefit cuts.

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