updated 1/26/2005 6:42:48 PM ET 2005-01-26T23:42:48

President Bush acknowledged the dicey politics of Social Security as he urged Congress to approve his plan to add personal accounts to the system. “Our job is to confront issues and not pass them on,” he said Wednesday.

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Bush plans to push the issue in his prime-time State of the Union address next week. Echoing his successful effort to pass tax cuts, he intends to visit at least four states that are home to Democratic senators who might be pressured to back personal accounts: Montana, North Dakota, Arkansas and Florida, according to two officials who were briefed on the president’s plans.

“I’m looking forward to taking the case to the American people,” Bush said at the first news conference of his second term .

Bush acknowledges touchiness of issue
The White House campaign for Social Security is well under way. Bush met privately Wednesday with Republicans for the second day in a row, and he publicly prodded lawmakers to back his plans, even as he acknowledged a political price.

“Social Security has been an issue that has made people nervous,” he said. He allowed that some congressional Republicans wondered “whether or not it is worth the political price. I think it is.”

“I fully understand the power of those who want to derail a Social Security agenda by, you know, scaring people,” Bush said.

In 2018, Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits than it collects, and by 2042, the system will collect only enough in Social Security taxes to pay about three-quarters of promised benefits, according to the program’s trustees. The Bush administration has characterized that situation as bankruptcy.

Bush said he was willing to consider any proposals from lawmakers except an increase in the payroll tax, although it was not clear whether he was ruling out a change that would apply the levy to income that is now tax-free, an idea being floated on Capitol Hill.

Congressional Republicans have acknowledged that they will need Democratic support to pass a Social Security bill. That is partly because there are too few Republicans in the Senate to survive a unified Democratic filibuster.

At the same time, many House Republicans, who have often pushed legislation through on partisan votes, believe a bipartisan bill would shield them from attacks that they are undermining Social Security, one of the most popular programs the government has ever created.

Democrats have signaled their plans to use the issue in 2006, when every member of the House will stand for re-election.

Banking on higher market returns
Under personal accounts, workers could divert some of their Social Security taxes into individual accounts that could be invested in stocks or bonds. The idea is that they would earn more over the long term than the system now earns by investing the money in government bonds.

But the private accounts would likely replace some of the promised benefit, which draws opposition from Democrats and others who fear erosion of the safety net aimed at keeping seniors out of poverty.

Hoping to answer those concerns, the White House is looking at ways to add protections for low-income workers. Officials speaking on condition of anonymity described a variety of ideas that are on the table.

Among them: adjustments based on income in the way promised benefits are calculated, which would give low-income workers a relatively larger benefit, and allowing low-income workers to invest more of their earnings in private accounts, which would allow their accounts to grow faster.

Bush said he looked forward to working with lawmakers of both parties, although so far, his private meetings at the White House with members of Congress have been for Republicans only.

White House officials and their allies have been quietly meeting with Senate Democrats who they believe are open to the idea of private accounts.

His coming travel will be targeted at Democratic senators, specifically Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Bill Nelson of Florida.

At his news conference, Bush twice likened his efforts to those once undertaken by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. He did not mention that Clinton urged Congress to “save Social Security first” in an era of budget surpluses. 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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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