WASHINGTON – President Bush, faced with a string of setbacks on Capitol Hill, shrugged off questions about his political clout and promised Tuesday to keep pushing the Republican-led Congress for a Social Security overhaul.
Looking ahead, the president also acknowledged he was thinking about a Supreme Court vacancy expected this year. That was a departure from the White House’s usual refusal to publicly discuss how Bush would approach filling a job that, while not now empty, has groups across the political spectrum already gearing up for battle.
He pledged to consult senators at “an appropriate time,” though he didn’t say how early in the process those talks would come or whether he would seek input from Democrats as well as Republicans. He suggested that a recent compromise ending a Senate showdown over judicial nominees wouldn’t necessarily lead him to lean to a more centrist pick for the high court.
“I told the American people I would find people of a certain temperament that would serve on the bench, and I intend to do that,” Bush said in his seventh news conference in the seven months since his election to a second term.
Answering questions for 51 minutes in the sun-splashed Rose Garden, Bush said his policies in Iraq, Iran and North Korea were working. He denounced as “absurd” a report by the human rights group Amnesty International that compared the U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a Soviet-era gulag.
The president held firm to his domestic policy agenda even though Congress – including some Republicans – has balked at much of it. Bush is facing fights over his plan to partially privatize Social Security, his nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador, a free-trade pact with Central America, an immigration guest worker program and his opposition to legislation to expand embryonic stem-cell research.
Eager to dispel any notion that he is a lame-duck president with little leverage, Bush used the word “push” three times and “lead” four, and showed no intention of giving up in any area.
“I’ve been around here long enough now to tell you, and tell the people listening, things just don’t happen overnight. It takes a while,” he said. “And one thing is for certain: It takes a president willing to push people to do hard things.”
He indirectly criticized GOP Senate leaders for the delay in Bolton’s confirmation vote, which Democrats united to force.
“I was disappointed that once again the leadership there in the Senate didn’t give him an up-or-down vote,” Bush said.
On Social Security, Bush derided those who oppose his call for action as taking an “easy path.” He predicted success for his drive to create private accounts within the government retirement program.