Dems tout AARP endorsement; GOPs blast 'liberal' group

President Barack Obama on Thursday touted the AARP’s endorsement of the House Democrats’ healthcare reform bill as Republicans lambasted the seniors’ group.

Thursday’s events were a complete role reversal from six years ago, when Republicans expressed glee after AARP backed its Medicare drug measure while Democrats excoriated the powerful association.

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Soon after the AARP announced its endorsement and the American Medical Association offered its conditional support for the House healthcare reform bill, Obama made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room to boast.

The president was clearly pleased to win the AARP’s support — and not without good reason. The group, which has roughly 40 million members coming from an intensely active voting bloc, has a fearsome track record of getting its way in major political debates.

The public support from the seniors’ lobby comes just two days before House members are set to vote on the landmark legislation.

“AARP is proud to endorse the Affordable Healthcare for America Act. We urge members of the House to pass this critical bill this year so our healthcare system can work for all of us,” AARP CEO A. Barry Rand said at a press conference.

“They’re endorsing this bill because they know it will strengthen Medicare, not jeopardize it. They know it will protect the benefits our seniors receive, not cut them,” Obama said. “So I want everybody to remember that the next time you hear the same tired arguments to the contrary from the insurance companies and their lobbyists. And remember this endorsement the next time you see a bunch of misleading ads on television.”

Even though the bill would significantly cut Medicare, it also closes the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole,” a top AARP priority. Those provisions will allow seniors to keep more of their money while the government picks up more of the cost of pharmaceuticals.

Going into the final stretch on healthcare reform, Obama finds himself in a similar place as his predecessor, President George W. Bush, while the AARP once again finds itself in the crosshairs of the congressional minority.

In 2003, the AARP announced its endorsement of Bush’s plan to create a privately administered prescription drug benefit under Medicare. Bush and the GOP crowed about the critical support for their plan. Democrats were enraged at what they perceived as a betrayal by a traditional rival. Some on the left accused the AARP of a conflict of interest because the group makes money endorsing health insurance products.

Without AARP’s backing, the 2003 drug measure may not have passed Congress.

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The AARP at the time said it was just looking out for its members’ best interests. The organization backed up that claim just two years later when it used its full arsenal to derail Bush’s effort to add private investment accounts to Social Security.

The pattern repeated itself Thursday as AARP sided with House Democrats.

“We’re thrilled that they’re standing up for this effort,” Obama said. “When it comes to the AARP, this is no small endorsement.”

Republicans, just a few years gone since basking in the AARP’s glow, blasted the group.

“AARP is one of the most liberal organizations in Washington, D.C.,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Obviously, most seniors aren’t aware of that.”

Rep Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who has hammered the AARP about its alleged conflicts of interest, lashed out. “This endorsement is an insult to seniors who depend on this organization to look out for their best interests,” he said. “The bill AARP endorses today not only makes drastic cuts to Medicare, but it also could place burdensome taxes on wheelchairs, pacemakers and hearing aids. How, in good conscience, could this be something AARP supports?”

AARP executives rejected such accusations, again saying they based their decisions on what their members want. One longtime AARP lobbyist noted that critics of healthcare reform have advocated Medicare cuts at other times.

“These same people who are raising some of these objections are people who have in the past voted for very stiff reductions in Medicare benefits and rates,” said John Rother, the AARP’s executive vice president of policy and strategy.

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The AARP is supporting a bill that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare, though Democrats insist those spending reductions will not negatively affect benefits. Big cuts to funding for private Medicare Advantage plans, however, could lead to the extra benefits being scaled back for some beneficiaries.

The AARP’s prominent role in promoting healthcare reform has also fomented dissent within its ranks. AARP executives have acknowledged that the organization’s conservative members have objected to its perceived support of Obama’s agenda, with a few thousand of them quitting in protest.

“We believe,” Rand said, that “more people will be interested in lower-cost healthcare than being mad at AARP” and that the group will actually gain members as a result of its support for the House bill.

Rand, who contributed $8,900 to Obama’s campaign committees in the 2008 cycle, replaced Bill Novelli as head of the AARP earlier this year.

While the AARP endorsement hardly guarantees success for the Democrats, it could provide a significant boost.

Polls have shown senior citizens to be the hardest segment of society to win over on healthcare reform. An intensified effort by the AARP could provide a significant boost to the effort.

AARP’s internal polls show a softening of opposition to the Democrats’ healthcare reform plans since a low point in August, and an increasing openness to the legislation, Rother said. Still, he acknowledged, the tide has not fully turned. “The people with definite opinions pro or con are really the minority,” he said.

Obama and congressional Democrats have aggressively courted the AARP’s backing all year. To this point, the organization had withheld an endorsement, and at one point even demanded Obama retract a statement he made this summer prematurely claiming the AARP’s endorsement.

But the AARP had practically done everything but endorse the Democrats’ bills. On its own and in coalitions with business and consumer groups, the AARP has spent millions over the past two years promoting healthcare reform and fighting back against conservative criticisms.

“Our bill closes the Part D ‘doughnut hole,’ eliminates cost-sharing for preventive coverage and improves access for low-income seniors and people with disabilities,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee’s Health subcommittee. “The Republican substitute does nothing to improve seniors’ health coverage.”

Molly K. Hooper and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.

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