WASHINGTON - House Republicans announced plans Friday to draft Social Security legislation by June as President Bush warned Democratic critics not to "play politics as usual" with his call for sweeping program changes including curtailment of some benefits.
"House Republicans are ready to roll up their sleeves and do some hard work on Social Security. We look forward to searching for solutions so that younger workers aren't left with an empty promise from the government," said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters he envisioned legislation that "won't just be a Social Security bill."
"It will be a retirement bill," Thomas said, indicating it would also include steps to encourage private retirement savings. He also signaled that the legislation could include provisions to ease the cost of long term or chronic health care for the elderly.
Democrats attacked anew. "Democrats believe that slashing Social Security benefits to pay for privatization is the problem, while Republicans believe massive benefit cuts are the answer," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the party's leader in the House.
House Republicans picked up the pace as Bush made his first public appearance since prodding lawmakers to consider reducing the benefits guaranteed to future middle and upper income retirees as part of a plan to assure the solvency of the Depression-era program.
"I have a duty to put ideas on the table, and I'm putting them on the table," the president said in suburban Falls Church. Va.
"If you're a younger worker, and you start paying into the payroll system today, and 2041 is about the time you start retiring, I'm telling you, the system is going to be bankrupt unless we do something about it," he added.
"In other words, you're working all your life, you're putting money in, and by the time it comes for you to get ready to retire, there's nothing there," Bush said. "That's a problem, folks, and it requires a solution, requires people to come together to make this work."
The outing was a follow-up to a prime-time news conference on Thursday, and he told his audience that "those who block meaningful reform are going to be held to account in the polls."
The president wants Congress to enact legislation that gives younger workers the ability to create voluntary personal accounts as well as place Social Security on a sound financial footing.
He used his news conference to pivot away from stressing personal accounts and placing greater emphasis on steps needed to make the program more solvent.
His spokesman, Scott McClellan, criticized opponents of the president who accused him of endorsing cuts.
But Democrats and their supporters seemed unfazed. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee issuing a paper entitled "Sliding Scale Benefit Cuts."
Under Bush's approach, future Social Security checks would increase more quickly for the lowest-income retirees than for everyone else. Though Bush promised that middle- and upper-income retirees would get benefits "equal to or greater than the benefits enjoyed by today's seniors," they would be smaller than what the system is now promising for the future.
"If you've worked all your life and paid into the Social Security system you will not retire into poverty," Bush said. "If Congress were to enact that, that would go a long way toward making the system solvent for the younger generation of Americans."
Thomas, the Republican chairman of the committee, said he intended to hold weekly hearings beginning in May until he is ready to present legislation to the panel in June.
The president "delivered phase one," he said of Bush, who has campaigned extensively to build support for changes in the system.
"It is now our responsibility to follow through legislatively and we will do it in as short a time as possible so we will get that done this year," Thomas said.
Across the Capitol, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, has said he hopes to have legislation before the panel by the end of July.
According to official estimates, Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits than it receives in taxes in 2017. Without changes, the trust fund will be depleted, and benefits will be cut for all recipients by 2041.
The president appeared at ease in the East Room of the White House as he fielded questions Thursday night from reporters after a 7-minute opening statement. At times, he twisted the toe of his shoe on the carpeted riser.
He discussed major foreign policy challenges, defended John Bolton, his embattled nominee to be U.N. ambassador and his pushed anew to get Senate votes on some of his controversial nominees for the federal bench.