April 28, 2005
WASHINGTON - President Bush is ready to begin talking with Congress and the public about specific steps he supports to ensure the future of Social Security and will announce his ideas during a prime-time news conference Thursday.
Bush was also using the formal question-and-answer session with reporters - his first in the evening in over a year - to talk about skyrocketing gas prices. The White House asked television networks to broadcast the news conference, scheduled for 8:30 p.m. EDT in the East Room of the White House.
The focus of the president's planned 10- to 12-minute opening statement was to be Social Security, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
A prime-time audience for what amounts to a speech at the top of the session allows Bush to seek to move the focus of public attention away from the alleged ethical improprieties of a key White House ally in Congress, House Majority Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and the troubled nomination of Bush's choice to be the next U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. Both controversies have dominated talk in the nation's capital in recent weeks.
Bush and top administration officials have been traveling around the country to pitch his proposal for overhauling Social Security, in part by allowing the creation of private investment accounts for younger workers. A 60-day nationwide blitz aimed at building support for that idea is ending on Sunday with some signs that public support has dropped. Democrats in Congress remain nearly unanimous in their opposition to that proposal and have said they won't begin negotiating a broad restructuring of the program with Bush until he drops the idea of private accounts.
Nevertheless, McClellan said that now that there has been "stepped-up legislative activity" on Social Security in the Senate and extensive consultations with lawmakers by Bush, the White House is ready to enter a new phase of the debate.
As a result, Bush was to "talk in more specific ways about his ideas for making Social Security permanently sound," McClellan said. Up to now, the president has only been willing to mention ideas that others have proposed to bridge the coming gap between Social Security revenues and obligations without giving any hint as to which ones - if any - he supports.
"There will be some new proposals that he will talk about that he believes ought to be part of any solution," McClellan said.
The spokesman would not say whether the ideas Bush intended to discuss include raising the retirement age or increasing the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, some of the ideas that have been floated. The only method the president has flatly rejected is increasing the payroll tax rate.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's cross-country sales job on Social Security has been "a dismal failure."
"What I'm hoping" is that he will say "Uncle" about his privatization plan, she said. The White House shot back that Democrats are behaving as the do-nothing party with no ideas to offer.
On energy, McClellan said Bush would push Congress to pass his long-stalled energy plan. Soaring oil and gasoline prices are beginning to take a toll on U.S. economic growth and on Bush's approval ratings.
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that the economy grew at an annual rate of just 3.1 percent in the first three months of this year, the slowest pace of expansion in two years.