Bush Warns Social Security Critics

President Bush suggested Wednesday that lawmakers who oppose his proposal for a Social Security overhaul could face political problems as a result.

"To answer the question of the skeptics, we do have a serious problem," Mr. Bush said in an interview aired on CBS radio affiliate WMT AM in Cedar Rapids on WHO NewsRadio in Des Moines. Mr. Bush conducted the interview at a local diner, the Spring House Family Restaurant. "Now is the time to fix it, and I think there is a political price for not getting involved in the process."

He added: "I think there is a political price for saying, 'It's not a problem, I'm going to stay away from the table.'"

With his visit here, President Bush brings to 21 the number of states he's been to in the last two months on behalf of his Social Security plan, CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller reports.

In his Social Security travels, Mr. Bush has aimed to emphasize the positive and appear the model of bipartisanship — promising Democrats there will be no political retribution for bringing forward any idea to fix the system and arguing that the matter is too important to be the subject of partisan bickering.

But there are few issues as politically divisive as Social Security. As Democrats have persistently opposed — and attacked — Mr. Bush's ideas and polls show support for them dropping, the president has in the last week begun to occasionally use more pointed language.

"I believe there will be a bad political consequence for people who are unwilling to sit down and talk about the issue," Mr. Bush said in New Mexico last week.

There and in other stops in the West, Mr. Bush also had Sen. John McCain join him. The well-regarded Arizona Republican played the heavy for the president, sharply accusing Democrats of being obstructionist and shortsighted.

Mr. Bush did not repeat his hint of a political threat at a town hall meeting here after the interview. Both the appearances were part of a 60-day national tour by the president and other top administration officials to push his top domestic priority.

Mr. Bush wants to allow younger workers to set up private investment accounts with part of their Social Security taxes. The president also is calling on Congress to approve a permanent fix to Social Security's solvency problems, something he has acknowledged private accounts will not accomplish. He has not specified what benefit cuts or other changes he supports to address the program's long-term fiscal ills.

Timed to coincide with the president's visit, the AARP held a news conference in Cedar Rapids earlier Wednesday to release the results of a national survey showing significant opposition within its membership to Mr. Bush's private accounts plan.

Notwithstanding a host of other, independent polls showing waning public support for his proposal, Mr. Bush focuses only on the part of the surveys that shows the public is — as it long has been — aware of the program's long-term fiscal problems. But though he insists he is making headway on the issue, the lingering skittishness among congressional Republicans — and outright opposition from most Democrats — indicates otherwise.

Mr. Bush's stop was in the district of Republican Rep. Jim Leach, who has found skepticism among many constituents for the Social Security changes Mr. Bush is pushing. It also took the president to the home state of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley — the man assigned to put his Social Security ideas into a bill that can pass Congress.

The Iowa Republican, who introduced Mr. Bush at the event, likewise has found little support among fellow Iowans and has said that the odds are against Congress approving the president's proposal. Nonetheless, Grassley intends to bring the matter before his committee starting this summer.

"We got to turn up the heat on Washington, D.C., to see this as an issue and get a bipartisan agreement to get something done," Grassley said.