By Kathleen Cullinan and Kevin W. Mccullough
WASHINGTON – President Bush’s call for Social Security reform drew the only audible grumbling during his State of the Union address Wednesday, grumbling that was echoed by members of Maryland’s Democratic delegation.
The president’s Social Security plan “just won’t withstand analysis,” said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., after the speech. “This was a real sales job.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said he was happy to see the president addressing the issue of Social Security.
“It was a tough sell, but he did a good job selling it,” Bartlett said.
The first State of the Union address of Bush’s second term in office came just days after the elections in Iraq, but the president only touched on foreign policy. He dedicated most of the 53-minute speech to his domestic agenda, calling for health savings accounts for individuals, renewed funding for AIDS programs and programs to stem gang violence, among other initiatives.
But it was the president’s call for Social Security reform that drew the biggest response.
Bush said Social Security was headed toward bankruptcy and he outlined his plan to turn that around, in part by allowing younger workers to divert part of their earnings toward personal savings accounts.
The president was interrupted 64 different times by applause, but his characterization of Social Security system as bankrupt drew some jeers from the House chamber.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said the president’s plan for privatization of Social Security was driven by a “phony crisis.”
Mikulski called Bush’s plan for Social Security a “flawed solution that is designed to send money to Wall Street.” She said it would create millions of dollars in debt, and that Americans should have a guaranteed solution, not a “guaranteed gamble.”
“Most of the beneficiaries of Social Security are women,” Mikulski said. “It is one of the most important safety nets for American women in old age, or at times of disability . . . to insure financial income for their families. We can’t gamble with Social Security.”
During a roundtable discussion before the speech, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, called Bush’s Social Security plan a “broken promise” on the “one thing Americans can count on.”
“The privatization of Social Security takes away from the guarantee that has been provided to our country,” Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen challenged Bush’s claim that Social Security is bankrupt, saying funds will be available to pay full benefits until 2042, after which benefits would drop to 75 percent of current levels. That drop in benefits could be avoided, Van Hollen said, if tax cuts that were granted to the top 1 percent of taxpayers were repealed.
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville, one of two Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation, called the address “one of the best speeches President Bush has ever given.”
“I was satisfied with the way he presented the Social Security issue because he didn’t ring it up in a very narrow way, he expanded the options that we in Congress will consider,” Gilchrest said.
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Mitchellville, said he appreciated parts of the domestic agenda the president laid out in the speech, including calls for an anti-gang initiative and energy independence. But he was “disappointed” in the president’s proposed Social Security changes, which Wynn said called a “risky investment scheme.”
“There were some good ideas,” Wynn said, but privatizing Social Security is “absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
But Bartlett applauded the president for at least tackling the “third rail” of American politics.
“Now we’re talking about it and we don’t have to,” he said.
— CNS reporters I-Wei J. Chang, Megan McIlroy and Elizabeth A. Weiss contributed to this story.
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