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Bush seeks support on Social Security

Takes fight for plan to foes' backyards

FARGO, N.D. -- President Bush yesterday took his campaign to remake Social Security to the backyards of three Democratic senators, attempting a political end-around that could be crucial to the success of his plans to partially privatize the retirement program for younger workers.

Building on the case he laid out in his State of the Union address a night earlier,

Bush touted his idea to allow workers born in 1950 or later to place a portion of their Social Security taxes in personal accounts, through a streamlined set of investment options.

The president asked young people to lobby their elected representatives on behalf of reform, warning that they "have a lot to worry about" because Social Security could run out of money during their lifetimes.

"There's not enough money coming into the system to pay for the promises for all those who are retiring, like Baby Boomers like me," Bush told a full house of about 7,000 people in a gymnasium at North Dakota State University.

"If you're a young person, demand that Congress at least address the issue head on and not pass it down," Bush said. "I truly believe that the American people can help decide an issue in the halls of Congress."

Bush's visit to the heartland came as Democrats back in Washington augmented their efforts to block the president's plan. Seven female Democratic senators took to the Senate floor to denounce the president's proposal as particularly unfair to women, since women depend more on Social Security because they are less likely to have pensions.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada led a group of Democratic senators to present a united front in opposition to Bush's plan. Standing in front of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial -- which commemorates the architect of the 70-year-old Social Security program -- the Democrats said Bush's plan would cause the national debt to double.

Reid accused the president of misleading by not mentioning the benefit cuts that would be necessary to balance the books under his proposal.

"Once again, we heard nothing about benefit cuts, nothing about debt, and nothing about how you will address the long-term solvency of Social Security," said Reid. "It's a Republican privatization plan that will cut benefits about $5,000 per year and increase our nation's debt by more than $4.5 trillion."

The White House carefully selected the states Bush is visiting in his campaign-style two-day trip to build support for the biggest and perhaps most controversial item on his domestic agenda.

Yesterday, the president visited North Dakota and Montana, two states he easily carried in November -- and two states that presidents seldom visit. Today, he has stops scheduled in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Florida, three more "red states." All five states he's visiting have at least one Democratic senator, and North Dakota and Arkansas have two.

Fifty-five of the 100 Senate seats belong to Republicans, but Senate rules require 60 votes to advance legislation, meaning Bush cannot win approval for his program without Democratic support. That has emerged as the biggest stumbling block to Bush's plans so far; Reid has declared Bush's privatization plan to be dead in the Senate before it has even been formally proposed.

Bush is hoping that, by taking his case directly to the people of states that supported his candidacy, he can win the votes he needs from their senators. Organizers drew a large number of college students to yesterday's events, tapping an age group that is skeptical about whether they will ever get the Social Security taxes they'll pay over their lifetimes.

"These guys right here in the front -- yes, you guys -- not fine," Bush said, gesturing to a group of college-aged attendees in the front section. "You got a problem."

Still, the effort got off to a rocky start. Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, shunned Bush's invitation to share a ride on Air Force One. He stayed back in Washington, and said he "cannot support the weakening of the Social Security program" through the diverting of payroll taxes to private accounts.

In Montana, Senator Max Baucus preceded Bush's visit to Great Falls with a town hall meeting of his own, and he has another one scheduled for today in Billings. Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which reviews Social Security legislation, had a much different message than Bush, saying that "subjecting Social Security to a risky stock market scheme will only make matters worse."

North Dakota's other senator, fellow Democrat Kent Conrad, took the president up on the offer of a flight and appeared in the audience at yesterday's event in Fargo.

Conrad, who is up for reelection next year, said in an interview that he remains "hopeful" that he and other Democrats will be able to support a Bush proposal on Social Security. But he added that the details of the plan released to date suggest far too much borrowing, as well as cuts in future benefits that would be too steep.

"I do believe there is a kernel of a good idea in individual accounts, but I don't think it's a good idea if it's financed by massive borrowing," Conrad said. "I don't think it's a good idea if it's financed by steep cuts in benefits."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com 

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