Bush pushes Social Security, energy ideas
President backs two-tier benefit increases
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a rare prime time news conference, President Bush urged Congress on Thursday to act on Social Security and energy, which he called "two vital priorities for the American people."
Bush for the first time backed a Social Security reform proposal in which benefits for low income workers would increase over time faster than for wealthier Americans.
"This reform would solve most of the funding challenges facing Social Security," he said. (Transcript)
Bush said his administration "is doing everything we can" to fight high gasoline prices and urged Congress to get an energy bill to his desk by "this summer."
"There will be no price gouging at gas pumps in America," he said.
The president's second-term agenda has encountered some resistance in Congress, and his approval rating has dropped in recent opinion polls.
"I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work," he said.
On education, Bush said the No Child Left Behind education program is working.
"I'll do everything I can to keep people from unwinding it," Bush said.
He didn't respond directly to a question about a recent lawsuit accusing Congress of failing to fully fund the program. (Full story)
The hourlong briefing, which began at 8:01 p.m., marked Bush's fourth prime time East Room news conference since taking office in January 2001, and his first since his new term began almost 100 days ago.
'Relentless' terror fight
On international affairs, Bush said he has invited new Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to come to the United States.
"I hope he comes soon," Bush said.
Iraq's transitional National Assembly earlier in the day chose a new government following three months of political wrangling in the wake of historic elections. (Full story)
Bush said Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network has been "severely diminished" and that the United States is making good progress in the war on terror.
"We will stay on the offense," he said. "We will be relentless."
A State Department report issued Wednesday said the fight against international terrorism remains "formidable" for the United States and its allies. (Full story)
Bush also addressed Russia's ties with Syria and Iran, two nations the State Department report cited as being "of special concern" among countries that sponsor terrorism.
Bush expressed displeasure with Russia's decision to sell "vehicle-mounted weaponry" to Syria.
"We're working closely with the Russians on the issue," he said. "We didn't appreciate that, but we made ourselves clear." (Full story)
Bush said Russian President Vladimir Putin was "trying to help" by taking an active role in Iran's nuclear energy program.
Bush said engagement in six-party talks remains the best way to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.
"Our aim is to solve this problem diplomatically," he said.
Three rounds of nuclear talks have been held since 2003 with no breakthrough.
Bush restated his support for his nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, saying John Bolton "isn't afraid to speak his mind" and is the right person for the job.
"John Bolton is a blunt guy," he said. "John Bolton can get the job done at the United Nations."
The Foreign Relations Committee postponed a vote on Bolton's nomination last week after a Republican member, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, joined Democrats in asking for more time to investigate fresh allegations about the nominee's past conduct. (Full story)
The president also called for the Senate to act on his controversial appellate court nominees.
"They deserve an up-or-down vote," he said.
Democratic opposition is preventing a Senate vote on seven of Bush's 215 nominees to federal judgeships.
Bush said he believed the nominees have been opposed "because of judicial philosophy" and not as "an issue of faith." (Full story)
Social Security 'solution' sought
Saying the program is "on the road to bankruptcy" in 2041, Bush urged Congress to "address the challenges facing Social Security."
"A variety of options are available," he said. "I will work with Congress on any good-faith proposal that does not raise the payroll tax rate or harm our economy."
Bush on Sunday is slated to complete a 60-day, 60-city tour during which he has called for change in the nation's retirement program for the elderly.
The president has emphasized that his proposal would give younger workers the option of creating private investment accounts funded with Social Security payroll taxes.
He restated his support for private accounts Thursday.
"Any reform of Social Security must replace the empty promises being made to younger workers with real assets," he said.
"The best way to achieve this goal is to give younger workers the option of putting a portion of their payroll taxes into a voluntary personal retirement account," he said.
Bush noted that baby boomers begin retiring in 2008, and that by 2017 the program will be paying out more than it is collecting.
He said that under his plan, people born before 1950 would not see any changes in their benefits.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed the president faces obstacles in changing the program.
In the poll, 64 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the way Bush is handling Social Security, and 31 percent said they approved.
On the question of private accounts, 51 percent of respondents said they opposed such an idea and 45 percent said they supported it.
The margin of error for both questions was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, criticized the president's Social Security proposal.
"The president threw down the gauntlet," Harkin said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "He said that any Social Security plan has to have private accounts. That's a nonstarter here."
"The American people are really picking up on this," he said. "They understand that this president really doesn't believe in Social Security."
Bush recognized that soaring gas prices are hurting millions of families and small businesses, but said the U.S. government alone is unable to solve the problem. (Full story)
If oil-rich nations can be encouraged to maximize production, that would ease prices, he said. And energy consumption, which he said is growing 40 times faster than oil production, must be curtailed.
In his 10-minute opening remarks, Bush said the United States "must take four key steps" to "reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy."
"First, we must better use technology to become better conservers of energy," he said.
"Secondly, we must find innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to make the most of our existing energy resources," he said, citing fossil fuels and "clean nuclear power."
"Third, we must develop promising new sources of energy, such as hydrogen, ethanol or bio-diesel," he said.
"Fourth, we must help growing energy consumers overseas, like China and India, apply new technologies to use energy more efficiently," he said.
Bush's energy bill failed to pass the Senate during his first term because of opposition to drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But with a wider GOP majority in the Senate this year, the measure appears more likely to pass. (Full story)
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he was "very disappointed in what the president said on energy."
"The big problem is rising gasoline prices; he didn't deal with that," the Democrat said on the Larry King program.
"Secondly, we need an Apollo-like project to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and he certainly didn't do that."