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AARP: Deficit, political realities force a shift

AARP, recognizing political realities, decides to soften its opposition to Social Security cuts in order to influence a compromise. But liberal groups thrash AARP for changing its position.

By Tim Reid and Donna SmithReuters / June 21, 2011

Jane Pauley joins AARP as new Ambassador of Your Life Calling in this February 2010 file photo. The seniors advocacy group has taken flack from liberal groups for softening its opposition to Social Security cuts.

AARP/PRNewsFoto/File

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WASHINGTON – For much of its 53-year history AARP, the powerful lobbying group for older Americans, has had such clout in Washington that its opposition or support has often helped decide the fate of legislation in Congress.

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But with a report on Friday that AARP is dropping its long-standing opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, it appears that the organization is giving ground to an even more powerful force: the enormous federal deficit.

Faced with the political reality in Washington that at some point lawmakers will have to rein in the costs of Social Security to keep it from going bankrupt, the willingness of AARP to consider benefit cuts shows that outright opposition -- a successful tactic in the past -- can no longer carry the day in an age of soaring federal debt.

Rather, AARP recognizes that if it wants to help shape the debate for its estimated 37 million members, it needs to give ground to have a seat at the table.

``In the past AARP really has been the 800-pound gorilla in American politics. Often it has taken absolute stands on issues, and it could afford to do so because they wielded enormous power and did not have to compromise,'' said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University and the author of books about interest groups in U.S. politics.

But with the issue of long-term deficits having moved center stage in Washington and becoming a major concern for voters, Rozell said AARP recognizes it cannot stand by and simply oppose benefit cuts, because this time lawmakers will probably proceed to reform Social Security without them.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that AARP had decided to drop opposition to benefit cuts. AARP said in a statement the story was ``misleading'' and that ``AARP has not changed its position on Social Security.''

AARP officials acknowledged an openness to consider benefit cuts as part of the solution to shore up the retirement system finances. But they want the program's financial health to be worked out separately and not in the context of current negotiations over the $1.4 trillion deficit and $14.3 trillion national debt.