WASHINGTON - President Bush challenged a wary Congress on Thursday to "put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security," promoting his idea that would combine reduced government benefits for younger workers with the prospect of higher retirement checks from personal investment accounts.
Bush, in a speech in Fargo, N.D., noted that that Democrats grumbled and groaned at his assertion that Social Security will require higher taxes, big benefit cuts or massive borrowing unless something is done to fix its finances.
"Some of them didn't see the problem," the president said at the first stop on a two-day, five-state trip to sell his program. Each state he visits is represented in the Senate by at least one Democrat the administration hopes to sway on Social Security.
"I expect people in Congress, when they see a problem, to then come up with solutions," Bush said.
"In other words, we're not going to play politics with the issue," he promised. "We're going to say, `If you've got a good idea, come forth with your idea.' Because now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers."
Bush was accompanied on Air Force One by several members of Congress, including Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. The president spent much of the flight talking with the lawmakers.
"He's saying we've got to take more money out of Social Security to start private accounts and borrow the money," said Conrad, a target of Bush's travels. "I just think it's very unwise."
Other Democrats said Bush's program could reduce guaranteed government benefits for younger Americans by 40 percent, while swelling the national debt by close to $2 trillion over a decade.
"All of us are willing to work with your administration for Social Security reform that will keep the system solvent for the long term," Senate Democrats wrote the president. "But we are concerned about the fiscal crisis facing the nation, and none of us would find it easy to support a Social Security plan that would increase each American's indebtedness to such a degree."
Bush outlined his plans only in broad strokes in Wednesday night's State of the Union address. Aides said that by leaving many key details vague, he intended to give GOP congressional leaders room to piece together legislation that can command a majority.
He laid down a few markers, though, saying he will not agree to increase payroll taxes and wants provisions to keep lower-income Americans above the poverty line during retirement.
"We must guarantee that there is no change" in current or promised benefits for anyone age 55 and older, he said in a move to neutralize opposition from older Americans.
In a 53-minute speech, Bush also blended the conservative with the compassionate, and gave no ground on his policy on the war in Iraq in which more than 1,400 American forces have died.
He renewed his call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and announced an increase in the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful convictions.
Social Security was the centerpiece of the speech, and Bush called for far-reaching changes in a program that was established in 1935 and remains one of the enduring legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress must "strengthen and save" the program, Bush said, warning that without action, it was headed for bankruptcy. Official estimates predict that benefits will exceed tax receipts beginning in 2018. In 2042, these estimates predict the trust funds will be exhausted, and benefits will have to be cut to 73 percent of current levels.
The president noted that a variety of solutions have been proposed over the years - such as limiting benefits for wealthy retirees, raising the retirement age, indexing benefits to prices rather than wages, discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits and changing the ways benefits are calculated - and said all are "on the table."
"He made it clear to the American people why we must strengthen the Social Security system, and gave the American people a realistic plan for how to do it," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said.
"Before the president's opponents get too worked up solely to scare seniors and play politics, I would hope both parties take the details of tonight's speech to heart," added Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Democrats, who argue that Bush is depicting the problems as grimmer than they are, attacked as soon as he finished speaking.
"There's a lot we can do to improve Americans' retirement security, but it's wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of 40 percent or more," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who delivered his party's formal response along with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
In addition to North Dakota, Bush had Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida on his itinerary.
The AARP, a powerful advocacy group for Americans age 50 and over, renewed its opposition to a key feature of Bush's plan.
According to officials who were briefed in private by the administration, the guaranteed Social Security benefit would be cut for all workers under 55, more so for those who decide to establish a personal account than for others.