WASHINGTON - President Bush on Monday opened his campaign in Congress for historic changes in Social Security, asking for legislation that will let workers create private retirement accounts within the government-run program.
Skeptical Democrats told the president any legislation must be bipartisan to prevail, according to participants in a session that signaled the likely start of a fierce struggle.
While the call for private accounts is the most controversial element of Bush's vision for a remodeled Social Security, the matter is bedeviled by difficult issues.
Even before lawmakers sat down for the White House meeting, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan indicated Bush favors government borrowing rather than tax increases to cover the costs of "transition to a better Social Security system." At a time of record deficits, estimates of the money needed range from $1 trillion to $2 trillion or more over a decade.
Even so, said McClellan, "Today's system is unsustainable. Younger workers are facing massive tax increases or massive benefit cuts if we don't act."
Republican officials said after the meeting that no timetable has been set for action in either house of the new Congress that meets in January. But supporters are eager to begin. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to introduce legislation giving workers the choice of a private account.
Several officials said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., would announce his support for the measure, giving it a bipartisan flavor. "I'll be at the press conference," he said.
Bush "said several times he ran on this" issue during his successful campaign for a second term, said Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who attended the White House session. He quoted the president as saying he "intended to spent a lot of his political capital" on it.
Many Republicans support changes along the lines Bush advocates as part of a bill to solidify Social Security's financial foundation. Many Democrats oppose private accounts as a threat to the program that provides a monthly retirement check to millions of Americans.
But Democrats at the meeting, holding their fire, said they would await more information from the president. "I'm willing to wait and see the numbers that they produce," said Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
A presidential commission in 2001 proposed allowing individuals to place up to 2 percent of their payroll into a private account to be invested for retirement. Any such plan depends on a large infusion of cash to replace the tax money that would otherwise fund the government benefits.
Bush and lawmakers of both parties generally agree on the need for eventual changes in Social Security to shore up its solvency. But they disagree sharply on the urgency of the task and the wisdom of letting workers channel a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts.
"They (Republicans) are trying to destroy Social Security," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the newly elected Senate Democratic leader, said recently. Asked whether he could support private accounts of any kind, he replied, "Not as far as I'm concerned."
Reid, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, said even without changes, "all experts say that Social Security beneficiaries will receive every penny of their benefits that they're entitled to - 100 percent of them - until the year 2055."
Workers generally pay a 6.2 percent payroll tax on income up to $87,900. Their employers match the payment, and the combined tax finances monthly Social Security retirement checks.
Changes will eventually be needed as population shifts - including retirement of the baby boom generation - cause the percentage of retirees to grow and the percentage of workers to shrink.
"The president has made it very clear that there will be no changes for those at or near retirement," McClellan said. He also told reporters the president opposes tax increases to help fill the gap in financing.
But other Republicans, even those with impeccable tax-cutting credentials, don't always agree.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently proposed raising payroll taxes on upper income workers as part of the legislation. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, has said tax increases should be considered.
Apart from borrowing, another option for covering costs is to increase the retirement age, which is gradually rising to 67 under legislation approved nearly two decades ago.
On the Net:
Social Security: http://www.socialsecurity.gov
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov