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White House hints at Social Security compromise

Bush hits trail to tout plan for private accounts

KIRTLAND, Ohio -- The White House signaled yesterday that it may compromise on how private retirement accounts would be created as part of a Social Security overhaul. President Bush kept pushing for major changes.

''We're not going to get into ruling anything in or out," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said as Bush traveled to Ohio to give a speech on Social Security.

McClellan was asked about comments by the president's chief economic adviser that Bush was willing to consider the creation of individual investment accounts as an ''add-on" to the Social Security system, as Democrats prefer, rather than financing them with a portion of Social Security payroll taxes, as Bush has been advocating.

''We're certainly willing to discuss it," said Allan Hubbard, head of the National Economic Council, who spoke at a breakfast meeting with reporters and was quoted by USA Today.

Democrats have adamantly opposed Bush's plan, in which younger workers would be allowed to divert some of their Social Security tax contributions into private accounts invested in stocks and bonds, saying it would result in a cut in guaranteed benefits. Democrats have said they would be much more inclined to embrace private accounts if they did not require the payroll tax diversion, but rather, were offered as an accessory to the traditional government benefit check rather than a partial replacement.

McClellan portrayed the private accounts as an idea the president has floated, and he contrasted that with many Democrats' opposition.

''Unfortunately, we have too many Democratic leaders who are simply saying what they're against and ruling things out," he said.

Nonetheless, McClellan said Bush ''feels so strongly" about private accounts, and the president continues to push for his proposal as the best approach.

''It's part of a permanent solution in order to make sure the younger worker gets a better deal," Bush told an audience at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland. ''The younger worker ought to be allowed to set aside some of the payroll taxes."

Bush campaigned for his idea by underscoring the ability of Ohio public employees to choose the type of retirement program they participate in, either a defined-benefit system run by the state or a defined-contribution plan they manage.

''See, it's an interesting concept that the people of Ohio put in place. The government said, 'Why don't we trust people -- after all, it's their own money,' " the president said after getting a briefing on the program.

Vice President Dick Cheney also touted Bush's Social Security plans yesterday at a town-hall-style meeting in Pemberton, N.J. ''The important thing for us is to get the debate started," he said.

But Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, said before Bush's appearance that Americans ''deserve the truth" from the president on his proposals. ''I believe that scripted, prescreened, theatrical forums, like the one that will be put on today using taxpayer funds, do the debate on Social Security a real disservice," Kucinich said.

Ohio is the 20th state that Bush has visited to promote his proposal since he unveiled it in his State of the Union address Feb. 2, and he plans at least three more Social Security events in the next two weeks -- in Columbia, S.C., on Monday; in Washington on Thursday; and in Galveston, Texas, on April 26. But despite the cross-country sales pitch, there has been no discernible increase in public or congressional support for his plan.

Bush has not yet offered ideas for addressing Social Security's future insolvency and has acknowledged that private accounts would not solve that problem.

Before leaving Washington, Bush met with the leaders of Luxembourg and Rwanda.

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