Deadline? We don’t need no stinkin’ deadlines

President Bush challenged Congress to “permanently fix Social Security” during a surprise press conference Wednesday, but continued to dance around how he would propose addressing the retirement system’s solvency problems.

Addressing reporters from the White House press briefing room, the president also demurred when asked about a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and once again pitched his energy policy on a day when the price of a barrel of oil reached $56.

“I would hope that when members go back to their districts and hear the complaints of people about the rising price of gasoline, or complaints from small-business owners about the cost of energy, that they will come back and … in a proper spirit, get a bill to my desk that encourages conservation and continue to find alternative sources of energy,” Bush said.

Congress already has taken one step. Just hours after the press conference, the Senate gave its support to drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a measure sought by the president but opposed by environmental groups.

The press conference was the fifth since Bush’s re-election victory in November, far outpacing the rate set in his first four years in office, when he engaged in fewer sit-downs with the press than any other chief executive in modern times. His willingness to answer questions is further indication that the White House is searching for more ways to get its Social Security message out.

Despite polls indicating otherwise, Bush said his plan, which would include the creation of private retirement accounts, is making inroads.

“I believe we’re making progress on convincing the American people of two things: One, nothing will change for seniors, those who have retired or near retirement; and secondly, that we must work together to make sure the system works for a younger generation of Americans,” Bush said. “That’s progress.”

The president acknowledged that he hasn’t yet rolled out a complete plan and that “personal accounts do not solve the issue” related to solvency. But he defended the “principles” he has espoused, maintaining that private accounts “will make sure that individuals get a better deal with whatever emerges as a Social Security solution.”

On Iraq, Bush said the coalition of nations participating in the operation, led by the United States, has been “buoyed by the courage of the Iraqi people.”

“I think they’ve been pleased and heartened by the fact that the Iraqis went to the polls and voted and they’re now putting together a government, and they see progress is being made,” he said. “And I share that sense of enthusiasm about what’s taking place in Iraq.”

The president dismissed reports that Italy is planning on withdrawing troops, saying he discussed the situation with Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and received assurances that there is no change in policy. No one, he said, wants to leave if it will carry a negative impact on the mission.

“So I think what you’re going to find is that countries will be willing _ anxious _ to get out when Iraqis have got the capacity to defend themselves,” he said. “And that’s the position of the United States. Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself.”

Bush also defended the U.S. practice of “rendition” _ transferring individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism from U.S. custody to countries where torture is common for those in custody.

“The post-9/11 world, the United States must make sure we protect our people and our friends from attack,” Bush said. “That was the charge we have been given. And one way to do so is to arrest people and send them back to their country of origin with the promise that they won’t be tortured. That’s the promise we receive. This country does not believe in torture. We do believe in protecting ourselves. We don’t believe in torture.”

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)