WASHINGTON — President Bush publicly prodded Republicans on Wednesday to follow his lead and approve personal accounts under Social Security, conceding some lawmakers are concerned about whether it will be worth the political price. "I think it is," he said.
"Our job is to confront issues and not pass them on," the president said at a White House news conference. He said he looked forward to mounting a vigorous public campaign for his recommendations, and stressed that he is open to discussions with lawmakers on "all areas except raising the payroll tax."
Bush has called for legislation to extend the financial stability of Social Security, and wants lawmakers to include an option for private accounts for younger workers. Administration officials have also said his recommendations may include lower starting benefits for future retirees than they have been promised.
Democrats have attacked Bush's proposals in recent weeks, arguing that they would weaken Social Security rather than strengthen it. They have signaled a determination to use the issue in the 2006 elections, and Bush conceded that Social Security has long been viewed as the "third rail of American politics."
The president said, "I fully understand the power of those who want to derail a Social Security agenda by, you know, scaring people. It's been a tactic for a long period of time by those who believe the status quo is acceptable."
Bush stepped to the microphone at the White House as Republican pollsters warned House GOP leaders they face a significant challenge in persuading near-retirees to support calls for personal Social Security accounts.
Younger workers strongly support Bush's recommendation and seniors oppose it, while Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are evenly split, according to a summary presented to top House GOP lawmakers Tuesday.
In a troublesome sign for Republicans, sentiment swings against personal accounts when near-retirees are exposed to a series of common arguments for and against the proposal.
In his remarks, Bush twice likened his efforts to those once undertaken by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. His predecessor was effective in "teeing up the issue," the president said.
Bush did not mention two significant differences — Clinton urged Congress to "save Social Security first" in an era of budget surpluses, while the current administration faces large deficits and is considering borrowing as part of its recommendations.
Nor did Clinton support allowing individuals to divert their payroll taxes into personal accounts.
In his remark about payroll taxes, it was not clear whether Bush was also ruling out a change that would apply the levy to income that is now tax-free. Some Republicans in Congress support such a move.
Bush said he looks forward to working with lawmakers of both parties, although thus far, his private meetings at the White House with members of Congress have been for Republicans only.
He held one such session on Tuesday, and told reporters he would host another one Wednesday, this time with members of the House GOP.
"It is important to consider this data in the context of the 2006 midterm elections," according to the polling memo. "Voters 55 years of age or older will make up fully 40 percent of the vote."
The survey was conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of the House GOP. A copy of an accompanying memo was obtained by The Associated Press.
Bush is expected to make Social Security a focus of his prime time, nationally televised State of the Union address next week. White House officials also have said he intends to travel outside Washington in hopes of building pressure on key lawmakers.
The GOP polling found that a majority of voters oppose reducing the starting benefit for all future retirees, or borrowing money or increasing the national debt.
On the other hand, there is support for applying the payroll tax to all income rather than maintaining an existing cap, and for reducing starting benefits for those who retire early.