Bush pushes his agenda
State of the Union speech focuses on Iraq, Social Security
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush laid out his second-term agenda Wednesday night in his State of the Union address, hailing the successful Iraqi elections and promising skeptical lawmakers that he would consider any good idea to overhaul Social Security.
Bush praised Iraqis for their courage for turning out Sunday to vote for members of a transitional National Assembly, the first step toward establishing a permanent government after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"The victory of freedom in Iraq will strengthen a new ally in the war on terror, inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran, bring more hope and progress to a troubled region and thereby lift a terrible threat from the lives of our children and grandchildren," he said.
The president also said that vote creates a new political situation that "opens a new phase of our work in that country."
"We will increasingly focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces -- forces with skilled officers and an effective command structure," he said. "As those forces become more self-reliant and take on greater security responsibilities, America and its coalition partners will increasingly be in a supporting role."
Several members of Congress had dipped their fingers in blue ink as a show of support to the voters, who went to the polls despite the threat of insurgent violence. Iraqi election officials used ink to make sure that people did not try to vote more than once.
"In any nation, casting your vote is an act of civic responsibility," Bush said. "For millions of Iraqis, it was also an act of personal courage, and they have earned the respect of us all."
The president also introduced Safia Taleb al-Suhail, an Iraqi human rights advocate who voted Sunday. As lawmakers stood and cheered, al-Suhail, holding back tears, flashed a "V" sign and showed her voting finger, too.
When Bush later introduced Janet and Bill Norwood, whose son Byron, a Marine sergeant, died in Iraq, al-Suhail and Janet Norwood embraced, an emotional scene that appeared to move the president and drew a long round of applause from the audience. (Full story)
Echoing a theme he sounded in his second inaugural address, Bush linked America's future security to the advance of freedom, particularly in the Middle East.
Bush also praised the new Palestinian leadership and said he will ask Congress for $350 million to support Palestinian political, economic and security reforms.
"The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure," Bush said. "The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace is within reach -- and America will help them achieve that goal." (Full story)
Bush said Social Security, on its current path, is "headed toward bankruptcy," and he urged Congress to "pass reforms that solve the financial problems of Social Security once and for all."
"We must make Social Security permanently sound, not leave that task for another day," Bush said.
He said the best way of reaching that goal is through a government-run program of "voluntary personal retirement accounts" that would have a "conservative mix of bonds and stock funds." (Full story)
"Here is why personal accounts are a better deal: Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver," Bush said.
At the same time, he said, "I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you. For you, the Social Security system will not change in any way."
Bush gave a broad outline of what he would and would not accept, and vowed to "listen to anyone who has a good idea to offer."
Bush said he would consider limiting benefits for wealthy retirees; linking increases in benefits to prices rather than wages, which would slow the rate of increases; raising the retirement age and discouraging early retirement; and changing the way benefits are calculated. (Full story)
However, Bush said he would not support higher payroll taxes. He also said changes must not affect anyone who is retired or nearing retirement, and he said any changes must be gradual "so younger workers have years to prepare and plan for their future."
Bush's speech lasted about an hour and was interrupted by applause 66 times, with 44 standing ovations. Democrats could be seen sitting silently as the president discussed some of his proposals and could be heard grumbling when he said that Social Security was in danger of bankruptcy.
Democrats have attacked Bush's plan for private accounts, charging that diverting payroll taxes would threaten retirees' benefits and that transition costs to the new system would drive up the deficit.
Social Security actuaries project the trust fund will last until 2042. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office puts that date at 2052.
After the trust fund is empty, payroll tax revenue would cover 73 percent to 81 percent of benefits, according to estimates from both Social Security and the CBO.
In the Democratic response, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Bush's plan was dangerous and would lead to benefit cuts for retirees.
"There's a lot we can do to improve Americans' retirement security, but it's wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of up to 40 percent," he said. "Make no mistake, that's exactly what President Bush is proposing."
Bush called for a bipartisan effort to restrain "the spending effort of the federal government" when he presents his 2006 budget next week.
"My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities. The principle here is clear: a taxpayer dollar must be spent wisely, or not at all," he said. (Full story)
Bush also said he continues to support a constitutional amendment to "protect the institution of marriage" and would work with Congress to make sure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or to grow body parts.
Bush said first lady Laura Bush would lead an initiative to work with parents, pastors and community leaders to encourage literacy, and discourage young people from joining gangs.
He urged Congress to pass his energy plan and called on Senate Democrats to allow up-or-down votes on his judicial nominees.
CNN's John King contributed to this report.