In a bid to nudge a balky Congress into backing his Social Security revisions, President Bush on Thursday offered to support a need-based formula for retirees born in 1950 or later.
Under such a plan, benefits for low-income workers would grow faster than benefits for people with higher incomes.
At the same time, Bush insisted that voluntary personal accounts be part of any reforms. "It's got to be part of the comprehensive package" on retirement benefits, Bush said in a prime-time news conference. "I like the idea of giving people some ownership. Congress felt so strongly that people ought to be able to manage their own accounts, they set one up for themselves."
It was only the fourth prime-time news conference of his presidency and was moved up to 8 p.m. from 8:30 p.m. late in the day to accommodate the programming conflicts of several networks.
Although Bush has been barnstorming the nation for two months without generating a groundswell for his signature Social Security program, the president vowed he would "stay with this issue."
The Associated Press reported that White House officials issued written material saying the type of change he had in mind could be accomplished with a "sliding scale benefit formula." That would mean lower payments for future retirees of middle and upper incomes than they are currently guaranteed -- a fact Bush himself did not mention in the news conference.
"I will work with Congress on any good-faith proposal that does not raise the payroll tax rate and harm our economy," the president said.
The new benefit program, according to White House documents, would solve about 70 percent of the system's long-term solvency problems.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said "the president has now made his privatization plan even less attractive. Price indexing will cut benefits for people who earn as little as $20,000 a year. Privatization plus deep benefit cuts to middle class citizens is even worse than privatization alone."
Other topics the president addressed included:
Judicial nominees -- urged the Senate to give 10 stalled judicial nominees an up-or-down vote but parted company with conservative groups who charged that those who want to filibuster his nominees are opposed to people of faith. "I think people oppose my nominations because of judicial philosophy," he said.
Energy -- predicted Congress will have an energy bill on his desk by August. But he acknowledged it would have "no quick fix" effect on the price of gasoline. If his policies had been in place a decade ago, he said, the country would now have stable prices. The surest way to lower gasoline prices, Bush said, is to persuade exporting nations to produce more crude.
U.N. ambassador -- strongly backed John R. Bolton, his nominee for United Nations ambassador whose confirmation has been stalled by Democrats and some Republicans who are concerned about reports that he bullies subordinates. "John Bolton is a seasoned diplomat, and he's been confirmed by the Senate (for other posts) four times," Bush said. "John Bolton is a blunt guy. Sometimes people say I'm a little too blunt. John Bolton can get the job done."
Domestic record -- said he is "disappointed" at the contentious atmosphere in Washington but said he feels his administration produced results such as bankruptcy, tort and education reform.
Iraq -- brushed aside a question that the insurgency in Iraq remains as strong as a year ago. "I believe we're making really good progress in Iraq because the Iraqi people are beginning to see the benefits of a free society," he said.
Korea -- called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "a dangerous person."