In a one-two punch on the issue, Mr. Clinton spoke first in his weekly radio broadcast, then addressed via satellite a 10-city town hall meeting on Social Security.
"If we act soon and responsibly, we can strengthen Social Security in ways that will not unfairly burden any generation retirees, the baby boomers, their children, or their children's children," the president said in his radio broadcast from the Oval Office.
Later on Saturday afternoon, audiences of about 100 people in each city talked to the president, each other and lawmakers including Republican Rep. Nick Smith in Detroit, who presented a GOP view. Clinton said the public discussion would help shape the debate in Washington.
"We mustn't break the solemn compact between generations," Clinton said. "We must be guided by a strong sense of duty to our parents, but also to our children."
Nearly 44 million Americans receive Social Security benefits. Without them, Clinton said, half of elderly Americans would live in poverty. Money for the program is raised through payroll taxes on active workers, and right now, there is more than enough coming in.
But starting in about a decade, 77 million baby boomers will retire, flooding the Social Security program. By 2029, experts predict, there won't be enough money for all the benefits that have been promised to retirees.
"This is no time to rest. It's a time to build," Mr. Clinton said. "I challenge my generation to act now to protect our children and ensure that Social Security will be there for them after a lifetime of hard work."
Other cities participating in Saturday's town hall meeting were Albuquerque, N.M., Boston, Boise, Idaho, Denver, Lexington, Ky., Minneapolis, San Francisco, Tallahassee, Fla., and Winston-Salem, N.C.
The event is part of a $12.5 million nonpartisan public outreach campaign, called "Americans Discuss Social Security," and sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts.
Mr. Clinton said he would convene a White House conference on Social Security in December that would start the process of crafting what he called "historic bipartisan legislation" in 1999.
Until next year's legislative effort to shore up Social Security, the president has requested that Congress set aside any federal budget surplus in case the money is needed for that job.
But some Republicans, including Congress's top budgeteers, Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, and Sen. William Roth, R-Del., want to put any budget surplus into personal retirement accounts for working Americans. For now, the accounts would be just add-ons to Social Security, but many in the GOP would eventually like to see at leat some Social Security taxes diverted into a private savings system.
But in a response to President Clinton's radio address Saturday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cautioned against letting people younger than age 65 buy early into Medicare
"Before we expand Medicare coverage to those of us who are not retired, we must solve the serious problems that threaten Medicare for Americans who have reached retirement age," McCain said.
Written by Sandra Sobieraj.
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