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Cheney talks about `major educational effort' on Social Security

WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday dismissed polls that suggest there's little public support for creating private investment accounts as part of Social Security.

Cheney, who'll headline a series of town hall meetings across the country on the issue later this month, refused to say how the Bush administration plans to correct the retirement system's long-term solvency problems, which President Bush's proposed accounts wouldn't do. But he charged that Democrats who oppose Bush's plan offer young voters a raw deal.

In an exclusive interview with The Charlotte Observer, the vice president said it was "premature" to say whether the Bush administration will support raising the retirement age, lifting the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes or any of the other proposals floating around Capitol Hill as possible solutions to the system's projected long-term financial shortfall.

Asked about polls indicating that private accounts are increasingly unpopular with voters, Cheney said he put no stock in the polls when Americans are still learning about the problems ahead for Social Security.

"The notion that you can lay out something this important, this complicated, that touches hundreds of millions of people and then go take a poll and say, `Oops! Sorry, we're going to stop' makes no sense at all," he said. "A poll's a snapshot in time. We're involved in a major educational effort here."

The vice president's office offered the interview to The Charlotte Observer in what appears to be part of a strategy to avoid the national media and speak more directly to voters. On Tuesday, Cheney did a sit-down interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He'll talk to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Friday and start his town hall meetings the week of March 21 in California.

In the interview in his West Wing office, Cheney also suggested that the administration may soon take a more combative tone toward Democrats, who've said they'll never accept—or even negotiate about—private accounts as part of Social Security.

"The position of someone like (Democratic Senate leader) Harry Reid, who said, `Absolutely no, heck no, we're not going to do anything'" would result in a "27 percent reduction in benefits for 30-year-olds by the time they retire," said Cheney, whose schedule may include a stop in Reid's home state of Nevada.

His reference apparently was to the Social Security trustees' forecast that if no changes are made, the system's annual income will cover only 73 percent of its annual expenses starting in 2042.

Democrats haven't yet offered a plan to fix Social Security's projected funding shortfall, but they've signaled a willingness to negotiate a compromise to fix Social Security—as long as private accounts funded by Social Security aren't part of it.

Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have floated plans that include private accounts, but they also tackle the solvency issue. Cheney declined to discuss those plans.

"At this stage, we're not prepared to make those choices yet," he said. "The business of negotiating with ourselves, to start trying to cherry pick and respond to every single proposal out there and say, `Yes on this' and `No on that'—that's not a very productive enterprise."

Though he's an unlikely pitchman for people who grew up watching MTV, Cheney returned again and again to how the private accounts would benefit young voters—a group Republicans are wooing. By investing, he said, they could get a higher rate of return than they could from traditional Social Security benefits.

"I've got kids in their 30s and ... and a lot of people (that age) believe they're more likely to see a UFO than receive Social Security," he said. "We need to find ways to ... reform Social Security so we can save it for future generations."

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(Funk reports for The Charlotte Observer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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