Magazine article Newsweek

Seniors Draw Fire; AARP Prepares to Punch Back on Social Security

Magazine article Newsweek

Seniors Draw Fire; AARP Prepares to Punch Back on Social Security

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman (With Jonathan Darman, Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe)

The letters on the building entrance are carved in gray stone, suggesting ancient inevitability and understated power. Inside, leaders of AARP, the famed "seniors lobby," exude an equivalent air of solid confidence. "AARP has an almost unshakable brand," said one. But the scene at AARP headquarters last week belied the blase words. Oblivious to a snowstorm that had emptied capital offices, the group's commanders were working late into the night, hunkered down around conference tables to plot their next moves in the war over Social Security--and the war-within-a-war over the central role of AARP.

President Bush's proposal for sweeping changes in the 70-year-old retirement program has touched off the mother of all lobbying battles, and AARP is suddenly in the line of fire. A pioneer of grass-roots lobbying, the group finds itself under attack from a new legion of well-funded, Web-based foes who have decided that the Bush plan will fail if a leading critic--AARP--isn't bloodied. "The AARP is an ossified bureaucracy that isn't always responsive to its membership," said a top White House official.

The organization opposes major changes in Social Security--especially private savings accounts. White House aides met privately with AARP chief William Novelli last week, NEWSWEEK has learned, and insist that they don't view AARP as the enemy. "I think the ice is breaking a bit," said one top official.

But with GOP support and the plan's arithmetic looking equally shaky, Bush's allies aren't taking chances. A well-funded conservative group called USA Next posted a Web page with two pictures: a camouflage-clad American GI with an X painted on him; two men in tuxedos kissing, with a checkmark on them. The caption: "The REAL AARP Agenda." The ad was justified, the group argued, because the Ohio branch of AARP had opposed an anti-gay-marriage referendum in the state. …

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