Democrats Clash With Bush on Iraq and Social Security


New York Times

February 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 - Democratic leaders in Congress clashed with the White House today on Iraq and Social Security, two subjects that are sure to figure prominently in President Bush's State of the Union Address on Wednesday night.

In a "prebuttal" to the presidential address, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, urged the president to use Sunday's elections in Iraq as an opportunity to change course in that country and "come clean" with the American public by presenting a coherent plan for what lies ahead in Iraq.

"Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there; so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done," Mr. Reid said in a speech at the National Press Club, where he appeared with Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, his counterpart in the House.

Ms. Pelosi reiterated many Democrats' skepticism about Mr. Bush's efforts to change Social Security so workers could place some money into personal investment accounts rather than pay into the existing retirement program.

Ms. Pelosi said private accounts could undermine the guaranteed benefits that are the bedrock of Social Security, and that the events of a half-decade ago should have taught an important lesson. "The burst of the Internet bubble in 2000 wreaked havoc on private investments," she said. "Imagine if it had done the same to their Social Security. We won't let a guaranteed benefit become a guaranteed gamble."

But the chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, equated "exit strategies" with timetables, and he said President Bush would not set one. "Timetables send the wrong message to the terrorists, because all the terrorists have to do is wait," Mr. McClellan said. "Then they can plan and coordinate and prepare attacks around those timetables."

Pressed again about "exit strategies," Mr. McClellan said the administration was focused instead on "completing the mission and helping the Iraqi people build a brighter future." When that mission is accomplished, he said, "then our troops can return home with honor."

As for Social Security, Mr. McClellan said a "good portion" of the president's speech "will talk about the need to save and strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren."

"Now, the president's made it very clear that if you're currently retired or near retirement, nothing's going to change," Mr. McClellan went on. "The system stays the same. This is about fixing a problem that faces younger Americans and future generations. And we need to act on this opportunity that's before us because it only gets worse over time."

House and Senate Republicans returned Sunday from a four-day strategy session in West Virginia, where Mr. Bush and the leadership sought to alleviate uneasiness about the Social Security initiative. One senior Republican official who attended the sessions said lawmakers were anxiously awaiting promised details in the president's address.

"The president made a very solid presentation on Social Security, but until people see a plan and see exactly what it will entail, it is hard for them to get their arms around it," said the official. "People understand the problem and the need to act, but until that action is defined there is still going to be some nervousness."

Another Republican official said lawmakers were heartened by a presentation by former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, seen as a moderate voice in the party and a possible presidential candidate, who was encouraging about Social Security changes. Both officials spoke about the private retreat only on the condition that they would not be identified.

The president's speech will not be the only flashpoint between the parties this week. On Tuesday, the Senate is scheduled to consider the nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales to be attorney general.

Democrats have indicated that they intend to subject his confirmation to extended floor debate, given his role as White House counsel in helping to develop administration policy on treatment of detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"There's certainly no secret that he was involved in the prison abuse situation, which involved torture," Mr. Reid said last week.

Opponents of the nomination say they would like to rally as many Democratic votes against Mr. Gonzales as they as can in a repudiation of the administration's policy on treatment of detainees and what they see as its lack of accountability.

Mr. Reid's remarks on Iraq followed a call last week by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, for the United States to begin disengaging militarily and politically from that country.

Saying the American presence was helping to fuel the insurgency, Mr. Kennedy called for the president to withdraw 12,000 or more troops soon after the voting. Mr. Kennedy, who reaffirmed that view in a statement Sunday after Iraqis voted, became the first senator to call publicly for withdrawal; about two dozen Democratic House members have done so as well.

In his remarks today, Mr. Reid pressed the Democratic case that the Bush administration is failing to fulfill its full commitment to members of the military.

"President Bush needs to do much more to live up to his obligations as commander in chief in this new term," he said. "That starts with no longer sending our troops into battle without the weapons and equipment they need."

Ms. Pelosi said the Bush administration's claim that the Social Security program faces a crisis follows a White House pattern of exaggerating problems to enforce preconceived solutions.

"We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling the system, and without allowing this administration's false declaration of a crisis to justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary, unaffordable and unwise," she said.

The two Democratic leaders will also offer the formal televised response to the president's address on Wednesday.