WASHINGTON — President Bush acknowledged Tuesday for the first time that his plan to restructure Social Security, once his top second-term domestic priority, was moribund because he had been unable to build public support for it.
Citing the expensive and more urgent task of rebuilding New Orleans and other hurricane-damaged regions of the Gulf Coast states, Bush said he retained "plenty, plenty" of political capital to push his agenda through Congress.
But in enumerating his short-term priorities at a nearly hourlong news conference in the White House Rose Garden, the president mentioned only the war on terrorism and the hurricane reconstruction.
"There seems to be a diminished appetite in the short term" for dealing with a Social Security overhaul, Bush said with a dash of resignation.
This year, in the face of united Democratic opposition to his Social Security agenda, the president campaigned throughout the country to try to build support for his proposal to allow younger workers to create personal retirement accounts with a portion of their Social Security payroll deductions. The effort never took off.
"The president's Social Security plan hasn't had a pulse in months; the NBA season was still underway when its pulse had ceased," said Charles E. Cook, a political analyst and newsletter publisher.
Whether Congress would act on Social Security next year remains an open question. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), have expressed doubt that Congress in an election year would be able to summon the political wherewithal to take on such a hot-button issue. Bush said as much Tuesday, noting that such action called for "political courage."
The president told reporters that he would continue to "remind" the public and lawmakers that Social Security's viability was "a long-term issue that we must solve" because the problem was "not going to go away."
During his remarks, at his first solo news conference since May 31, Bush vigorously and repeatedly defended Harriet E. Miers, his nominee to the Supreme Court, saying that she was "the best person I could find."
He also warned of a possible outbreak of the avian flu virus, which he said might lead to a quarantine of part of the country.
On the war in Iraq, Bush said that "more and more Iraqis are able to take the fight to the enemy," with more than 30 army battalions in the field. "There's obviously more work to be done, more units to be stood up," he said. "But we've got, as I said, over 30 battalions in the lead, and that's positive progress."
The president called on Congress to pay for hurricane reconstruction in a "fiscally responsible" way.
Experts have estimated that the job could cost $200 billion or more, a tab that has prompted some fiscal conservatives to question Bush's bona fides as one of them.
Asked about his record of fostering big government with the war on terrorism and the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, Bush insisted: "I'm still a conservative, proudly so."
He urged Congress to "pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending" and offered to work with lawmakers to make "real cuts" elsewhere in the budget to pay the bill. He has ruled out tax increases.
Bush said he had already asked Congress for $187 billion in cuts over 10 years from federal benefit programs, and $20 billion in the next fiscal year alone from non-defense programs whose annual spending levels were set by Congress in appropriations bills.
Bush's $187-billion figure put the best face on his budget posture. Three factors, interpreted differently, could turn the apparent cuts into an increase in spending:
* Omitted from the $187 billion in proposed cuts were an accompanying $49 billion in proposed increases. Including these would reduce the net cuts to $138 billion.
* The Congressional Budget Office, making different estimates of the rate of federal spending, estimates that the net cuts would total $103 billion.
* The White House excluded the effect of some of its tax proposals that would result in payments to taxpayers whose child-care tax credit and other credits exceeded the income taxes they owed. Including these, said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would leave a net spending increase of $16 billion.
Separately, Bush said he had asked Congress to trim its annual appropriations by $20 billion by eliminating 99 programs and slashing spending for 55 others. As with federal benefit programs, the president excluded $3 billion in proposed increases for programs in this category. Including them would reduce savings to $17 billion.
The House, which has passed all 11 of its regular appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, achieved essentially all the savings proposed by Bush. But the Senate, with four bills to go, is hitting the target only by means of some budgetary sleight of hand.
The Senate has gained wiggle room by shortchanging the defense spending bill by about $4 billion, with the tacit understanding that it will restore the defense cuts in a special bill providing money for the Iraq war. And its Appropriations Committee has pushed the final monthly Supplemental Security Income payment from the last few days of fiscal 2006 to the beginning of 2007, saving $3 billion in 2006.