COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - If re-elected, President Bush (news - web sites) plans a "big January surprise" and will move quickly to allow some private Social Security (news - web sites) accounts that will reduce benefits for retirees and swell the U.S. deficit, Democratic Sen. John Kerry
(news - web sites) said on Sunday.
With just 16 days before the Nov. 2 presidential election, Kerry kept up his relentless criticism of Bush's record on the economy in his bid to win a neck-and-neck White House race.
Speaking at a Baptist church in Columbus, Ohio, Kerry seized on remarks by Bush published in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday that if elected to a second term he would "come out strong after my swearing in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security."
Kerry said Bush's plan would cut benefits by up to 45 percent and would swell an already record deficit by $2 trillion over a decade.
"We just learned yesterday that the president told his biggest and wealthiest donors about his big 'January surprise,"' Kerry told the black congregation. "He's to come out strong, in his words, to fight for his plans to privatize Social Security."
Kerry said Bush's Social Security plan was further proof he was "out of touch" with the needs of average Americans.
The four-term Massachusetts senator was headed later to Florida, another crucial battleground state and home to many retirees who rely heavily on Social Security. Kerry said Bush's plan could reduce retirement benefits by $500 a month for many Americans.
His warnings about the future viability of America's government-run retirement system were also the topic of a new Kerry campaign television advertisement.
The White House says Bush has yet to settle on a plan to reform the retirement system or on a means to finance it.
Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said, "That's absolutely preposterous. What the president is talking about and has talked about from the moment he ran in 2000 is allowing younger people, younger workers to own a portion of their Social Security and invest it and make decisions."
A leading option under consideration would let workers voluntarily redirect 4 percent of their payroll taxes -- up to $1,000 annually -- to the personal accounts.
The estimated cost of diverting these payroll taxes to personal accounts ranges from $1 trillion to $2 trillion over 10 years, analysts say.
Kerry picked up a number of newspaper endorsements on Sunday, including from The New York Times, which cited his wide knowledge and clear thinking, and his home town paper, The Boston Globe.
In recent days, Kerry has focused on pocketbook issues, lambasting Bush for failing to stem the flight of U.S. jobs overseas, giving tax breaks to millionaires and large companies at the expense of working Americans, and for running up a record budget deficit.