WASHINGTON — AARP, the powerful lobby for older Americans, was hammered Friday by fellow activists for refusing to oppose all cuts to Social Security benefits, a position the group says it has long held as a way to extend the life of the massive retirement and disability program.
The group, which has 37 million Americans as members, adamantly opposes cutting Social Security benefits to help reduce the federal budget deficit, said David Certner, the organization's director of legislative policy. But for years AARP has acknowledged that cuts to future benefits may be necessary to improve the program's finances, he said.
"Our policy for decades has always been that we basically support a package that would include revenue enhancements and benefit adjustments to get Social Security to long-term solvency," Certner said. "That has been our policy stated over and over again for, I mean, literally it has to be two decades, now."
However, the issue gained major notice Friday as White House and congressional leaders continued to negotiate ways to reduce government red ink. Social Security has not been a part of those talks. Instead, negotiators have focused on potential cuts to Medicare, the government health insurance program for older Americans.
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In the midst of that, The Wall Street Journal quoted AARP's longtime policy chief, John Rother, saying the agency was dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits.
"The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens," The Journal quoted Rother as saying.
Certner said the story was inaccurate, that AARP's views were long held. Nevertheless, the story set off a firestorm among Social Security advocates, who roundly criticized AARP as selling out seniors. Most advocacy groups oppose all cuts to Social Security benefits, even those that would affect only future generations, such as an increase in the retirement age.
"AARP is losing the confidence of seniors around the country, and not just seniors but people of every age group," said Max Richtman, acting CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "I hope the ship that he wants to steer isn't the Titanic filled with seniors."
Ed Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said, "AARP does not speak for all seniors, and on this topic probably not many of their own members."
Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of about 300 groups, accused AARP of trying to win an influential seat at the negotiating table when lawmakers tackle Social Security.
"AARP is positioning itself as an inside dealmaker that's open to benefit cuts when in fact it should be educating the public about the need to selectively improve the one economic security retirement institution that works quite well," Kingson said. "Even if one believes that some ground may have to be ceded on Social Security, it's terrible negotiation strategy to signal a willingness to compromise before negotiations are joined."
Rother was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment, said AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns. Instead, AARP made Certner available for numerous interviews and released a statement by CEO A. Barry Rand.
"Let me be clear — AARP is as committed as we've ever been to fighting to protect Social Security for today's seniors and strengthening it for future generations," Rand said in the statement. "Contrary to the misleading characterization in a recent media story, AARP has not changed its position on Social Security."