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Bush, Black Leaders Seek New Start

President Bush is reaching out this week to black leaders — from pastors to legislators — in an overture to a community that overwhelmingly voted again him.

Mr. Bush told a select group of black leaders Tuesday that his plan to add private accounts to Social Security would benefit blacks since they tend to have shorter lives than some other Americans and end up paying in more than they get out.

Social Security was one of many issues that came up during Mr. Bush's private meeting with 14 clergy and 10 leaders from business and nonprofit groups.

Exit polls showed that Mr. Bush received just 11 percent of the black vote in November's election, a slight increase over the 9 percent he received four years earlier.

Mr. Bush and his strategists are under no illusions of winning the black vote for Republicans in the near future. But they believe that any advances on this and other minority voting blocks could make the difference in close elections.

The president planned to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 43 Democrats, on Wednesday. The caucus had an adversarial relationship with Bush in his first term, but Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., the group's new chairman, said members are hoping to find common ground with Bush in his new term.

Many of the people at the meeting with Mr. Bush Tuesday were the president's political supporters. Attendees said the president promised more trade with Africa and support for home and business ownership by blacks. They also said his supporters in the room praised Bush for opening federal dollars to churches and religious organizations and encouraged him to push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

President Bush said this month it will be virtually impossible to overcome Senate resistance to passing an amendment under current legal conditions.

"We felt very strongly that we hope that the president would make this a priority on his agenda," said Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Woodson said many black pastors encouraged their congregations to vote for Mr. Bush on the issue, but Bush didn't respond to the request. "He was noncommittal on it because he has more priorities," Woodson said.

Perhaps his top domestic priority currently is to overhaul the Social Security system. Although he has not revealed details of his plan, he wants to let younger workers invest a portion of their Social Security taxes to private investment accounts in exchange for a reduction in future guaranteed benefits. The administration says retirees or those near retirement age would not have their benefits reduced.

Michelle Bernard, senior vice president at the Independent Women's Forum, a Washington-based group that opposes traditional feminist ideology, said Mr. Bush stressed that he does not want to abolish Social Security, only mend it.

"There was a lot of discussion about how the Social Security system as it stands today has a negative impact on African-Americans simply because, regardless of your education background or socio-economic level, African-Americans tend to have a shorter life expectancy than others," she said.

Democratic congressional leaders are united against Mr. Bush's idea to overhaul the system, and some Republicans have said they are reluctant to change a program that tens of millions of Americans rely on for retirement security. They are urging Mr. Bush to sell the idea to the public so they can get behind it politically, and the meeting with blacks was part of the White House effort to build support.

"African-American males have a have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "And this will enable them to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors."

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