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Originally published Wednesday, March 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bush, McCain plug Social Security

At the start of a congressional recess in which lawmakers will hear from constituents about President Bush's plan to change Social Security...

Los Angeles Times

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At the start of a congressional recess in which lawmakers will hear from constituents about President Bush's plan to change Social Security, Bush and his allies yesterday asked Democrats and the AARP to stop attacking their ideas.

Bush issued the plea in Albuquerque alongside onetime rival for the presidency Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has a better working relationship with Democrats than does the White House.

"I believe there will be a bad political consequence for people who are unwilling to sit down and talk about the issue," Bush told supporters during one of his staged "conversations" on Social Security, appearing with McCain and New Mexico's Republican senator, Pete Domenici. "I think the American people expect people from both parties to stand up and take the lead and solve this issue."

McCain, who was with Bush on Monday and yesterday for a swing through New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, pointedly addressed AARP, the 35 million-member group for people 50 and older that has galvanized opposition to Bush's plan among senior citizens. Choosing his words carefully, McCain accused opponents of wanting to wait to make a change until 2042, the year its reserve funds are projected to be depleted, leaving it with more financial obligations than money.

"I want to say to our friends in the AARP, and they are my friends, come to the table with us," McCain said. "We not only have an obligation to seniors, but we have an obligation to future generations."

Also yesterday, McCain said the conclusions of a commission investigating intelligence failures on weapons of mass destruction should not lead to new questions about whether the Iraq war was justified.

"America, the world and Iraq is better off for what we did in bringing democracy," McCain said.

He is a member of a commission formed by Bush after the chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, resigned, saying "we were almost all wrong" about the prewar estimates that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons.

The nine-member panel is to release a final report at the end of the month that is expected to take a critical look at the assessments of weapons programs, particularly in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, by the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community.

McCain's remarks on Social Security reflected a recognition by White House strategists that unified Democratic opposition to the Bush-backed change and the popularity of AARP are contributing to a decline in public opinion for the president's performance on Social Security.

Bush wants to let workers born after 1950 divert a portion of their payroll taxes into individual, privately managed retirement accounts invested in stocks and bonds. In return, workers would have to accept a cut in the traditional Social Security benefit.

Bush concedes the accounts alone would not solve the system's problem in handling the coming wave of baby-boom retirements. But he casts the accounts as part of a larger plan to shore up the system's finances.

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Opponents charge that creating private accounts would drain money from the system, putting current and future beneficiaries at risk while leaving them vulnerable to the vagaries of the stock market. Critics also disagree with Bush's claim that the system will soon be in crisis, suggesting that only minor changes are required, such as adjusting benefits or raising payroll taxes.

An AARP official said McCain was wrong to suggest that the group wanted to wait, but he added that private accounts were not a viable option.

"We share an interest in resolving this problem sooner rather than later, but we have pretty profound differences on how best to solve it," said John Rother, AARP's policy director. Of the group's opposition to private accounts, he said: "We're not budging on that."

AARP began its third wave of advertising against the Bush plan over the weekend, with ads in newspapers and on radio and television nationwide. One features a plumber telling a woman that the only way to fix her clogged sink is to demolish her entire house, suggesting that Bush's plan for Social Security is out of proportion to the problem.

Bush, aware such lobbying has left lawmakers wary of alienating seniors leading up to the 2006 elections, has been traveling the country trying to convince older people that they don't need to fear his plan and that he does not want to change anything for people born before 1950.

"A lot of people rely upon the check," Bush said. "It's an important part of their life. That's why none of us want to put a system in place that touches that check. It's essential that you hear that."

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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