Dems face a dilemma with AARP

Democratic anger with AARP for supporting the Republicans’ Medicare prescription-drug bill 15 months ago has barely subsided, and many House lawmakers remain skeptical that the advocacy group’s opposition to GOP attempts to reform Social Security will last. The Democrats’ apprehension about AARP, the nation’s largest group representing senior citizens, registers at different levels throughout the caucus. Some lawmakers are willing to set aside their lingering resentment over the party’s defeat on Medicare in hopes of defeating the president’s proposal to offer personal accounts. Less forgiving Democrats, however, say AARP should stay on the other side of the aisle and work with “their new GOP friends.”

Democratic anger with AARP for supporting the Republicans’ Medicare prescription-drug bill 15 months ago has barely subsided, and many House lawmakers remain skeptical that the advocacy group’s opposition to GOP attempts to reform Social Security will last.

The Democrats’ apprehension about AARP, the nation’s largest group representing senior citizens, registers at different levels throughout the caucus. Some lawmakers are willing to set aside their lingering resentment over the party’s defeat on Medicare in hopes of defeating the president’s proposal to offer personal accounts. Less forgiving Democrats, however, say AARP should stay on the other side of the aisle and work with “their new GOP friends.”

AARP CEO Bill Novelli, who infuriated many Democrats with his endorsement of Bush’s drug plan, has not had an audience with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) since 2003. He has, however, met with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee; and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

While Pelosi has sat down with AARP President Marie Smith, representatives of the group have been excluded from key Pelosi meetings with like-minded groups, said aides and participants.

At those strategy sessions, AARP has been noticeably absent among operatives from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Campaign for America’s Future, Retired Americans, Families USA, the National Women’s Law Center, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women and the NAACP, according to e-mail invitations, aides and participants.

Evelyn Morton, AARP’s national coordinator for economic issues, acknowledged that some tension remained with House Democratic leaders.
“In the Pelosi meeting, the issue was briefly discussed. You have to acknowledge that there were some differences,” she said. “It’s hard for some people to move beyond that, but many people are moving beyond.”

Some healthcare experts have said AARP had to embrace the GOP Medicare plan because it was perhaps the last chance to grab a drug benefit worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Others say AARP could have negotiated more successfully on the bill’s specifics.

One consumer advocate said Democrats should bury the hatchet because AARP is the only group with extensive resources that can combat the business community’s campaign to back Bush’s plan on Social Security. The Medicare debate should be viewed as “a battle, not a war,” the advocate said.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) is one Democrat who has not moved beyond AARP’s support for the GOP prescription-drug plan.

“I am still very disappointed,” said Ackerman, who suggested that AARP might find more doors open on the Republican side. “The Republicans are the ones that bought them, or at least rented them for a while.”

“Let the AARP deal with the Republicans, their new friends,” he added.

Morton responded to that sentiment by saying, “Certainly we haven’t reached out to each and every Democrat yet, but right now our primary effort is to educate people on the downside of the president’s plan.”

Several lawmakers said AARP must first repair its damaged relationship with its own membership — and reenlist the members who burned their cards in protest — before attempting to salve the political wounds at the congressional level.

“The level of trust [AARP has] in the caucus is relative to the level of trust they have with their constituents,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). “They don’t have as much to prove to us as they do their own constituents.”

Crowley said that lawmakers are making their disappointment with AARP clear, though he said he is ready to meet with any of its representatives and already has at the local level.

“This gave them an opportunity to come in and make nice, but we can’t help but mention of where they were on [the Medicare bill]. But they cowered a little bit,” he said.

But Levin, the Democrats’ point man in the House on Social Security, has met with Novelli, Smith and John Rother, AARP’s policy director. He appeared to be more forgiving than many of his colleagues, though he said Democrat’s were still disappointed over Medicare politics.
“They know that Democrats were disappointed. They know that, if it was raised, it was not dwelled upon,” he said.

Levin said that he was convinced AARP would not abandon the Democrats on this issue. “When I talked to Marie Smith, she was categorical” in her opposition to the president’s plan.

“Our focus is not on the past but on winning this battle, but that doesn’t mean that there doesn’t remain some disappointment,” Levin said.

Several Democrats said that AARP’s recent media campaign against the president’s proposal is winning some converts and its credentials have been fortified by attack from a group with GOP ties.

“There’s a healthy degree of skepticism if, ultimately, they will follow through with their stated opposition to personal accounts,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

“That’s definitely a countervailing pressure. They are running newspaper ads. But there’s sort of a sense to make sure they see this through to the end,” the aide added.

Helping AARP efforts to rehabilitate their image have been reports of an anti-AARP media campaign planned by the Republican donors who funded the “Swift boat” ads attacking Sen. John Kerry in his presidential campaign. The group USA Next has said it will spend as much as $10 million on commercials to target AARP.

That announcement led Levin to rally to AARP’s defense.

“The president can’t simply look the other way as supporters of his Social Security privatization plans begin to launch a ‘character assassination’ campaign against the AARP. He must condemn these efforts immediately,” Levin said in a statement.

Bob Cusack contributed to this report.