By Carl Hulse

WASHINGTON — With President Bush scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address on Wednesday, Democratic leaders in Congress are planning a pre-emptive strike today, challenging Bush on his policy in Iraq and his plans for Social Security.

In a "prebuttal" to the presidential address, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the minority leader, plans to urge the president to use Sunday's elections in Iraq as an opportunity to change course in that country and "come clean" with the American public by presenting a coherent plan for what lies ahead in Iraq.

"Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there; so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done," said a draft of the speech Reid is to deliver in an appearance with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., his counterpart in the House, at the National Press Club here.

Excerpts of Pelosi's remarks show that she plans to emphasize Democratic skepticism about Bush's efforts to change Social Security so workers could place some money into personal investment accounts rather than pay into the existing retirement program.

"Private accounts also take away the one thing that makes Social Security the bedrock upon which Americans can build their retirements — the guaranteed benefit," Pelosi is to say in her speech. "The burst of the Internet bubble in 2000 wreaked havoc on private investments. Imagine if it had done the same to their Social Security. We won't let a guaranteed benefit become a guaran

teed gamble.


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As the Democrats planned their presentation, House and Senate Republicans returned Sunday from a four-day strategy session in West Virginia, where Bush and the leadership sought to alleviate uneasiness about the Social Security initiative. One senior Republican official who attended the sessions said lawmakers were anxiously awaiting promised details in the president's address.

"The president made a very solid presentation on Social Security, but until people see a plan and see exactly what it will entail, it is hard for them to get their arms around it," said the official. "People understand the problem and the need to act, but until that action is defined there is still going to be some nervousness."

Another Republican official said lawmakers were heartened by a presentation by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, seen as a moderate voice in the party and a possible presidential candidate, who was encouraging about Social Security changes.

Bush's State of the Union will not be the only flashpoint between the parties this week. The Senate could consider the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general as early as today.

Democrats have indicated that they intend to subject his confirmation to extended floor debate, given his role as White House counsel in helping to develop administration policy on treatment of detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq. "There's certainly no secret that he was involved in the prison abuse situation, which involved torture," Reid said last week.

Opponents of the nomination say they would like to rally as many Democratic votes against Gonzales as they as can in a repudiation of the administration's policy on treatment of detainees and what they see as its lack of accountability.

Reid's remarks on Iraq followed a call last week by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., for the United States to begin disengaging militarily and politically from that country.

Saying the U.S. presence was helping to fuel the insurgency, Kennedy called for the president to withdraw 12,000 or more troops soon after the voting. Kennedy, who reaffirmed that view in a statement Sunday after Iraqis voted, became the first senator to call publicly for withdrawal; about two dozen Democratic House members have done so as well.

In his remarks, Reid intends to press the Democratic case that the Bush administration is failing to fulfill its full commitment to members of the military.

"President Bush needs to do much more to live up to his obligations as commander-in-chief in this new term," the speech says. "That starts with no longer sending our troops into battle without the weapons and equipment they need."

In her comments, Pelosi says the Bush administration's claim that the Social Security program faces a crisis follows a White House pattern of exaggerating problems to embark on preconceived solutions. 

"We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling the system, and without allowing this administration's false declaration of a crisis to justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary, unaffordable, and unwise," the text stated.

The two Democratic leaders will also offer the formal televised response to the president's address on Wednesday.