LAS VEGAS - Democrats will stand firm and not begin discussions on Social Security reform until President Bush abandons his plan for private retirement accounts, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Saturday.
"We will not attempt to solve the problem as long as he continues to try to gut Social Security with his privatization plan," Reid told a crowd of about 400 gathered for a town hall meeting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The Nevada Democrat said he told Bush on Friday in a letter signed by 42 senators, "We will not negotiate with you until you take privatization off the table."
Reid, along with Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., were at UNLV as part of a two-day, four-city "Fix It, Don't Nix It" tour to discuss the Social Security issue. Previous stops included New York, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
"Privatization is a catchword for 'get rid of,"' Reid told the crowd, praising Social Security as one of the most successful social programs in history.
But Bush has described a program headed toward financial disaster, citing estimates that Social Security will begin paying out more than it collects in taxes as early as 2018.
To fix the program, he has proposed allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. In exchange, people who take the deal would see their traditional government benefit cut, with total benefits determined by the success of each personal account.
Bush envisions no change for retirees or workers age 55 and older.
To sell the plan, the administration has launched a two-month travel blitz by Bush and other officials.
Democrats have countered with their own tour and plan more trips to cities across the country to drum up opposition to the privatization plan, which they say will come at the expense of traditional benefits and widen the deficit.
"Have you noticed that the people who are trying to take apart Social Security are people who will never need Social Security?" Dorgan asked, drawing huge cheers and applause from the UNLV crowd.
Outside the town hall meeting, a small group of Republicans donned Harry Reid face masks and ostrich costumes, holding signs that read, "No, my head's in the sand."
"The president is being the open-minded one," said Brian Scroggins, chair of the Clark County Republican Party. "The president has said everything is on the table."