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Party says it's time to stand and fight

WASHINGTON -- Their numbers and power diminished, congressional Democrats hope their vigorous response to President Bush's State of the Union address will help fuel a turnabout from the election miseries of November.

In addition to their leaders' televised response last night, Democrats were inviting senior citizens to the House galleries to underscore their opposition to Bush's Social Security plans and planned a news conference today in Washington at the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed Social Security into law.

The prime-time speech offered center stage to the president, who was focusing on Social Security and US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Democrats were following with their leaders.

''We all know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, according to excerpts of the televised response she was to deliver after Bush's remarks.

''Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos," said Pelosi, a California Democrat. ''We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq."

Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in excerpts of his remarks, said Bush's plans sound more like ''Social Security roulette" than reform.

''Democrats are all for giving Americans more of a say and more choices when it comes to their retirement savings. But that doesn't mean taking Social Security's guarantee and gambling with it. And that's coming from a senator who represents Las Vegas," Reid said.

Besides Bush's reelection, the Nov. 2 voting increased the small but decisive majorities Republicans hold in Congress. The GOP also ousted Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, Reid's predecessor as minority leader.

That has left the lower-profile Pelosi and Reid among the party's leaders and forced Democrats to ponder what course will best help them regain seats in Congress.

Many in the party think Bush has given Democrats a golden opportunity with his idea of letting beneficiaries divert some Social Security revenues to new personal investment accounts, and borrowing money to pay the extra costs.

''The president neither has the mandate he thinks he has, or a majority to make policy" because of worries by moderate Republicans, said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois. ''He's making a mistake on both, which is overreaching."

Even so, Democrats were not volunteering detailed alternatives to Bush proposals. Reid told reporters that without a specific White House blueprint for overhauling Social Security, he saw no need for Democrats to offer ''a counterplan to nothing."

To underscore what they said was the unpopularity of Bush's Social Security plan, about 15 House Democrats were giving to constituents, including older Americans, the ticket that lawmakers each receive for a gallery seat during Bush's speech. Pelosi said the spectators would ''reflect those who have the most to lose with what we've seen of the president's plan on Social Security."

In their responses, Reid and Pelosi accused Bush of failing to develop a plan for protecting the country from terrorism and said Democrats wanted more health, education, and job training benefits for veterans.

Reaching out to Hispanics, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, and Representative Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, were delivering a Spanish-language response yesterday evening.

Bush was planning a two-day campaign-style swing beginning today to sell his Social Security plan in states with Democratic senators from whom he hopes he can win support for the proposal.

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