The two top Democrats in the U.S. Congress challenged President Bush on Monday to draft an “exit strategy” in Iraq and work with them in his drive to revamp the Social Security retirement program.
With Bush set to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, the Democratic pair made a political pre-emptive strike or, as they put it, a “pre-buttal,” in a joint appearance of their own at the National Press Club.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, hailed as “a milestone” Sunday’s Iraqi elections, when millions defied threats and went to the polls.
“But on Wednesday night,” Reid said, “the president needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead: defeat the growing insurgency, rebuild Iraq, increase political participation by all parties … and increase international involvement.”
Without offering a timetable, Reid added, “Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there.”
House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, focused her remarks on domestic matters, and took aim at the administration’s drive to revamp Social Security by allowing workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds.
Many oppose such private accounts, fearing that they could undermine, rather than strengthen, the program.
“We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling Social Security and without allowing this administration’s false declaration of a crisis to justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary, unaffordable and unwise,” Pelosi said.
“To be sustainable, any long-term solution must be bipartisan,” Pelosi said.
An updated Congressional Budget Office projection released on Monday estimates the retirement system will exhaust its trust fund by 2052, 10 years later than projections cited by Bush.
Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Republican Party, replied, “While President Bush is looking to work with Democrats in confronting the challenges facing our nation, the Democrat leaders’ attacks on a speech that has not even been delivered are a sad reminder of their determination to score partisan political points even at the cost of accomplishing the business of the American people.”
Millions of Americans are certain to tune in at 9 p.m. on Wednesday (0200 GMT Thursday) to the State of the Union address, an annual event that hands the president a major opportunity to speak to the nation and the world.
Afterward, Reid and Pelosi will deliver their party’s official response. If history is any indication, many will have turned off their TVs or switched channels by the time they speak.
Still, as former Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley put it, Reid and Pelosi will likely be addressing their biggest audiences ever. “They will be heard,” said Foley, who attended the pair’s joint appearance.
As a result of the Republicans’ success in the November elections, Reid and Pelosi face expanded majorities in Congress as they seek to rally public support for the Democratic case for change.
Pelosi said, “As the president begins his second term, it is fitting that we pause to look at where our nation stands, where we are headed and what better course of action should be taken.”
Reid said: “Let me be clear; There is no partisan split in our commitment to defending this nation. America stands united in waging the war on terror. We Democrats simply believe we need a stronger strategy for winning this war.”