After a year of promises during congressional debates, at town hall meetings, and on the campaign trail, the president's address to the year-end White House Conference on Social Security centered around a plea for bipartisan cooperation on action next year.
Both Democrats and Republicans have pledged to try to find common ground on how to prepare Social Security for the retirement of the nation's huge baby boom generation.
"We should begin this process on common ground, agreeing above all on the importance of acting and acting now, while we can, during prosperous and productive times," the president said.
But the closest he came to revealing a specific idea on change was the sweeping and generic assertion that "Social Security is and must remain a rock-solid guarantee." With Republican leaders saying they won't move forward until Clinton advances specifics, no decisions about the retirement program's future are likely to come out of the two days of talks.
"We're at a transition point where the question is, how do we proceed with a bipartisan process and that's a very big question," said White House budget chief Jack Lew.
At a downtown Washington hotel this morning, Clinton addressed the conference of about 250 people invited by the administration from a broad array of groups representing different views on Social Security.
Vice President Al Gore also had been scheduled to speak, but is with family in Nashville, Tenn., following the weekend death of his father, former Sen. Albert Gore. Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were expected to join the Gores for a memorial service later today.
Congressional leaders also were invited to give opening statements at the Social Security event. House Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston, R-La., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., did not plan to attend personally but each sent a delegation of Republicans. Top Democratic leaders, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, were expected to come along with other Democrats.
The House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, planned to make the GOP's pitch for a solution to Social Security's problems without tax increases, and for Clinton to take the first step.
"You need to submit to Congress a specific plan to save Social Security soon or the job may not get done," said Archer in prepared remarks aimed at the president.
The Social Security Administration arranged sites in all 50 states for people to gather to watch the event, which is to include discussions by three panels of experts live via satellite.
After the public meeting, top White House advisers were to participate in closed-door talks with awmakers and public policy advocates this afternoon and with lawmakers alone on Wednesday.
Although neither Democratic nor Republican leaders have yet endorsed any specific plans for Social Security's future, rank-and-file lawmakers have introduced reams of legislation.
Many of the ideas have spurred lobbying and grass-roots activism. Labor and civil rights organizations oppose raising the retirement age, for example. Business and conservative groups want individual Americans to be able to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market.
Moderates from both political parties said Monday they are working behind the scenes for an agreement between GOP leaders and the White House that could result in congressional committees starting work early next year on bills that already have some bipartisan support.
"Somebody's got to put something out there to start discussing," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.
By Alice Ann Love