Washington President Bush's proposal to restore solvency to Social Security by deeply cutting benefits for some Americans faced extreme peril Friday on Capitol Hill where few lawmakers are eager to tell their constituents that they will be receiving less money in the future.
Republicans seemed more inclined to move forward with Social Security legislation than to specifically embrace Bush's new plan, and they promised to produce bills in the House by June and in the Senate by late July.
The president, in his Thursday night news conference, called for revamping Social Security by curbing the growth in benefits for middle-class and wealthy Americans while pledging that low-income workers would see their benefits rise faster than those for the well-to-do.
"It's now gut check time for both parties," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leader in the Social Security debate who supports Bush's idea. "There's going to be people who don't like what the president proposed on our side."
Certainly, Democrats wasted no time Friday criticizing Bush's plan.
"I think he's in an indefensible position on this," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "I think he's going to get a very negative reaction -- not just from the country at large -- but also from his own party."
One Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, could say nothing positive about Bush's idea, other than that he appreciated the president getting the debate started.
"I don't think that's the sort of solution we ought to be going at," Brownback said on MSNBC moments after Bush's news conference ended. "I personally don't think that's really the route we ought to be going."
Bush on Friday kicked off a new campaign to convince Americans that the 70-year-old retirement program needs fixing.
In a community center in Falls Church, Va., a suburb of Washington, the president convened a friendly town meeting to tout his Social Security proposal and to warn Democrats to "set aside party politics" and consider his proposals.
"I have a duty to put ideas on the table, I'm putting them on the table," Bush said. "And I expect Republicans and Democrats to do the same kind of thing and so do the American people."
But Congress is a place where lawmakers work hard to bring home pork barrel projects and make sure their constituents benefit from formulas devised to distribute everything from highway dollars to education funding.
"Congress is not going to eat the vegetables that the president is offering," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior analyst at the Democratic Leadership Council and a former aide to Republican Sen. John McCain. "It doesn't work ... it will neither sell with the right nor the left in Congress."
To be sure, Bush's proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security tax dollars in private investment accounts has struggled to gain traction. His suggestion that benefits should be recalculated to favor the poor and cut from the middle- and upper-income workers seems to be bringing him even more criticism.
"While privatization is bad," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., "privatization with deep benefit cuts is worse."
A February poll by the Pew Research Center found only 30 percent of the public responding favorably to the idea of "lowering the amount that Social Security benefits go up each year for changes in the cost of living" as a way of dealing with the retirement program's solvency problem. Even among conservative Republicans, only 35 percent favor that approach. On the other hand, the survey found that 58 percent favored limiting benefits "for wealthy retirees."
Nevertheless, some Republican leaders rallied to the president's cause, pointing out that the Democrats had nothing to say for themselves other than "no."
"Sitting on the sidelines as a do-nothing faction won't help save this important and vital program," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Still, many Republicans limited their remarks Friday to thanking the president for educating the public on the problems with Social Security, rather than fully embracing Bush's proposal to recalculate benefits using progressive indexing, which would reduce the growth in benefits for most Americans.
"I applaud President Bush for clearly tackling this tough issue, and look forward to working with my colleagues to enact legislation that is responsible, fair and guarantees that Social Security is here today and secure for generations of tomorrow," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.