Senior-Citizen Lobby Gears Up for Fight To Preserve Benefits

Plan to eliminate energy tax shifts focus to entitlements. BATTLE ON CAPITOL HILL

WORD is going out to senior-citizen centers, church groups, and older activists: Uncle Sam may want you to take an across-the-board cut in your government benefits.

Last week's proposal by several key senators to cap the government's so-called entitlement programs - those that provide benefits to all who qualify, such as Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps - has sent shock waves through the interest groups that represent senior citizens.

Although it's too soon to gauge the volume of calls and letters to Capitol Hill, the top generals in the senior-citizen lobby are hoping their troops will come through with a massive response.

And though the interest groups say they cannot match the millions of dollars the energy industry has put into its campaign to defeat President Clinton's proposed energy tax, they say they have a more potent force behind them: popular sentiment and a constituency that votes.

"Our biggest power is that we are trying to represent public opinion," says John Rother, legislative director of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) - with 33 million members, one of Washington's most powerful lobbies.

Public opinion in favor of the programs that take care of the poor and senior citizens is strong across all age groups, not just the elderly, Mr. Rother says. But, in contrast with the poor, older Americans do turn up at the polls in high numbers. Voter turnout is consistently highest in the 50-to-70 age bracket.

AARP is spreading the message to its members through its various publications. It has also sent alerts out to its leaders positioned in every state, many of whom are on a first-name basis with their members of Congress. Next week's congressional break, during which many members will be in their home districts, will be a crucial opportunity for personal contact with their congressmen and senators.

"People will probably write letters, but it's more powerful for constituents to talk to representatives face to face," Rother says.

By next week, the House of Representatives will likely have voted on Mr. Clinton's deficit-reduction bill, but constituents can still apply pressure at the next step in the bill process.

Before Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and John Danforth (R) of Missouri put forth their deficit-reduction plan May 20, including a provision for capping entitlements and elimination of the energy tax, a bloc of conservative House Democrats had floated similar ideas. The Boren-Danforth plan, crucial because at best it deadlocks the Senate's tax-writing committee on Clinton's plan, has clouded the picture in the House for the White House proposal. House members are leery of voting for an energy tax the Senate may kill.

But even if the Boren-Danforth plan hasn't garnered mass, open support in Congress, activists for senior citizens want to make sure it never does. One challenge the lobby faces is semantic. A cry of "No caps on entitlements!" does not resonate, nor does such a technical phrase even register with most Americans.

"The tone is of people demanding government benefits without any personal responsibility," says Kurt Vorndran, lobbyist for the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC). "With Social Security, people spent a lifetime paying in and earning the right to benefits. Same with Medicare. Same with veterans' benefits."

But, he admits, his point of view has lost the battle of terminology. Thus, the flood of "action alerts" emanating from Washington to older activists around the country. NCSC last week sent out "seniorgrams" to 5,000 clubs and activists with information about the Boren-Danforth plan. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is activating its 6 million members. The National Council on the Aging says it can reach 8 million to 9 million people.

Families USA, a group that supports programs for the elderly and the poor, has activated its computer network of 10,000 people, detailing the plan, calling on them to contact their congressmen and to pass the word along to at least five other people.

"The Boren-Danforth plan is an outrageous effort to give relief to the better-off (delaying tax-increases on the rich and on corporations, for example) by trimming benefits for the aged, the sick, and the poor," says Families USA's A.S.A.P. Action Alert.

The Boren-Danforth plan would reduce cost-of-living increases on Social Security benefits of more than $600 a month, a projected savings of $23 billion. The plan would also impose spending ceilings on welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and veterans benefits.

The rationale for capping entitlements is that they are the fastest-growing part of a federal budget deep in deficit. But advocates for seniors say the sharp increase in government spending for programs like Medicare and Medicaid is the real problem and reform of the health-care system is what is needed.

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