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Kerry: Bush would break promise on Social Security

Article quotes president vowing to push for privatizing system

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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry seized on a report Sunday that President Bush would seek to quickly privatize Social Security in a second term.

Kerry insisted such a move would be "a disaster for America's middle class."

Sunday's scuffle began with a New York Times Magazine article by journalist Ron Suskind that quoted Bush as saying at a recent private luncheon that he would "come out strong" in a second term ''with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security.''

The Bush campaign insisted the magazine inaccurately quoted Bush and that the president was taking the necessary actions to protect Social Security.

Campaign officials argued that the president has long discussed plans to help shore up Social Security, partly through allowing some funds to be transferred to personal savings accounts.

Bush "has never used the word privatization," a campaign official said, accusing Kerry of trying to "scare seniors."

Battling for votes in a very close election, Bush and Kerry have frequently traded barbs on the issue, which especially hits home with seniors.

The latest tussle came as Kerry campaigned in the key swing state of Florida, home to a large number of senior citizens.

At a rally Sunday outside Miami, Kerry ripped into Bush's plans for personal savings accounts.

"The Congressional Budget Office, which is bipartisan, said that the president's plan will mean a 25 to 45 percent cut in benefits. It blows a $2 trillion hole in Social Security," Kerry said.

"I will never privatize Social Security," the Massachusetts senator said. "I'll never cut the benefits, and I won't raise the retirement age."

Bush campaigned in Florida on Saturday but was not on the trail Sunday. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)

On the Sunday TV talk shows and in a phone conference with reporters, Kerry campaign officials railed against what they called Bush's "January surprise."

But they focused most of their comments on the program that Bush has previously announced, arguing it would hurt seniors and place a burden on all taxpayers.

It was not clear whether Bush's comment as quoted in the Times Magazine signaled a plan different from what he has described publicly.

In the third and final presidential debate last week, Bush said allowing workers to put some of their payroll taxes into personal savings accounts could allow them "to get better rates of return than the rates of return being given in the current Social Security trust.

"And the compounding rate of interest effect will make it more likely that the Social Security system is solvent for our children and our grandchildren."

In a written statement, Kerry said such a move "might be a good surprise for the wealthy and well-connected, but it's a disaster for America's middle class.

"The president's privatization plan for Social Security is another way of saying to our seniors that the promise of security will be broken."

The Kerry campaign cited the Economic Report of the President 2004 that determined Bush's plan would cause a rise in the deficit. But the report also said the increase in the deficit would be temporary and would not be passed on to future generations.

"Even the president's own economic advisers say his plan will blow a $2 trillion hole in Social Security. And guess who will pay for it? You will," Kerry's statement said.

"America's seniors are already facing higher prescription drug costs, record high Medicare premiums, and higher gas costs.

"With family budgets being stretched to the limit, the last thing seniors need is the president's 'January surprise.' That's a surprise we can all live without."

The Kerry camp insisted the senator from Massachusetts has a detailed plan to save Social Security by reducing the deficit and instituting fiscal discipline.

In a phone conference with reporters, Kerry campaign official Jason Furman said that under Bush's plan, "you get 50 years of deficits."

"They may not think that that's a problem, but John Kerry thinks deficits do matter," Furman said.

In response to Kerry's statement, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in a news release, "The president is the only candidate to talk about the need to strengthen, preserve and modernize Social Security.

"His plan would make sure that for retirees and near-retirees there are no changes in benefits, while recognizing that we need to give younger workers a better system so that Social Security will be there for them."

Commerce Secretary Don Evans argued the Kerry campaign was misrepresenting the facts.

Bush "has been saying for over five years that we must address the Social Security system," Evans said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Asked whether Bush's plan could cost $2 trillion, Evans replied, "They don't know that. I mean, that's just a number, you know, they're drawing out of the air."

Evans also emphasized that people moving into retirement won't lose "one cent" of their benefits.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Kerry chief strategist Bob Shrum said that if Bush had only withheld the tax cut he gave to those who make more than $1.2 million a year, "we could have made Social Security whole for 75 years."

Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman responded by depicting Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal who would "raise taxes on Social Security."

The issue seemed likely to linger for days. Sunday, the Kerry campaign released an ad attacking Bush on the issue.

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