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Inside Politics

Top Democrat pledges Social Security fight

Senate minority leader says Bush plan 'will not happen'

The signature domestic theme of President Bush's State of the Union address Wednesday night will be Social Security, aides said.
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Topics covered in past Bush State of the Union addresses.
George W. Bush
White House
Harry Reid

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush will use his State of the Union speech to argue for a swift overhaul of Social Security, the White House said Tuesday, but the top Senate Democrat called the idea a non-starter.

"President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill.

"It will not happen -- and the sooner he comes to that realization, the better off we are."

Bush has endorsed the idea of allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, probably in exchange for a lower guaranteed benefit.

No specifics have yet been put on paper and submitted to Congress, but White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday night's speech would include "greater detail."

"We can debate whether it's a crisis or not a crisis, but you can't ignore the fact that it is a serious problem that we face and that it only gets worse over time," McClellan said.

"People can look the other way and stick their head in the sand and think that the problem will go away, but it doesn't. It gets worse over time."

What Bush calls a crisis is the projected exhaustion of the Social Security trust fund, which has been built up to support the system ahead of the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.

The system's actuaries estimate, based on worst-case numbers, the trust fund will run out in 2042, leaving Social Security able to pay only 73 percent of guaranteed benefits after that point.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, using less-pessimistic projections, puts the date at 2052 and says the system would be able to pay 81 percent of benefits after that.

McClellan said Tuesday that inaction would result in "a bankrupt system" -- an assertion hotly disputed by Democrats, who argue Bush is overstating the problem to sell an idea long supported by conservatives.

Bush is scheduled to embark on a five-state tour to sell his proposals after the Wednesday night speech.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Tuesday that Bush and congressional Republicans will try to make the public understand "there is a lot to do in a short amount of time."

"That message, that we have a huge problem, has to be shared, and the American people have to be engaged with a real understanding for us to be successful," said Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

But Bush appears to face near-unanimous Democratic opposition to the idea in Congress, and some Republicans -- including Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- have balked at the proposal as well.

Reid, the senior senator from Nevada, said he does not know of a single Democrat among the 45 in the Senate who will support Bush's proposal.

Once the president concedes that, Reid said, "we can get to issues that are certainly more in the form of a crisis than a program that has enough money to have it in the form it's in for the next 50 years."

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday he supports the idea of private accounts, but "my constituents want to hear more from the president."

He said, "I'd like to know how we get there because, obviously, the assumption of a couple trillion in debt is going to be difficult."

He was referring to the idea that allowing workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes to private accounts would take money away from payments to current recipients, which would have to be made up by budgeting $2 trillion or more from the general budget, according to some estimates.

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