Bush Hints Social Security Cuts; Congress Asked to Share the Burden

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Sammon, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Bush told Congress last night in his annual State of the Union address that "you and I share a responsibility" to make sweeping changes to Social Security that he said might include, for those who are now younger than 55, cutting benefits and increasing the retirement age.

"Thirteen years from now, in 2018, Social Security will be paying out more than it takes in ... By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt," the president said as a chorus of "no" rose from the Democratic side of the chamber.

"I recognize that 2018 and 2042 may seem like a long way off. But those dates are not so distant, as any parent will tell you," he said, turning in the critics' direction. "If you've got children in their 20s, as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter. And it should not be a small matter to the United States Congress.

"You and I share a responsibility. We must pass reforms that solve the financial problems of Social Security once and for all."

It was the first time that the president openly discussed the possibilities of raising the retirement age beyond 65 and "limiting benefits" of Social Security.

In the first State of the Union speech of his second term and in contrast to those of his first term, Mr. Bush concentrated on domestic matters, including moral values, one of the key issues in his presidential win over Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

"Our second great responsibility to our children and grandchildren is to honor and to pass along the values that sustain a free society. So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children," he said. "Government is not the source of these values, but government should never undermine them."

In the 55-minute speech interrupted for applause 63 times, Mr. Bush ventured further than ever into the touchiest of all domestic issues - Social Security, which an aide to former House Speaker Thomas J. "Tip" O'Neill once dubbed "the third rail of American politics."

He discussed "discouraging early collection" of benefits, "indexing benefits to prices rather than wages" and "changing the way benefits are calculated."

"All these ideas are on the table," he said. "I know that none of these reforms would be easy. But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty."

Democrats savaged the president's Social Security plan in their response, which was delivered by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

"It's wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of 40 percent or more," Mr. Reid said. "Make no mistake, that's exactly what President Bush is proposing."

In the foreign-policy segment of the speech, the president said America has entered a "new phase" in Iraq, which held its first free elections in a half-century over the weekend. He called for spreading democracy into other Middle East regimes.

For example, for the first time, Mr. Bush singled out Saudi Arabia and Egypt as Middle East regimes that need to move toward democracy. And he pledged $350 million to the Palestinian Authority to support "political, economic and security reforms."

"America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he said, recalling the lofty rhetoric of his second inaugural two weeks earlier.

On Iraq, Mr. Bush said the election on Sunday "opens a new phase of our work in that country."

Although he refused to set "an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out," Mr. …