Washington – AARP, the powerful lobbying group for older Americans, was dropping its long-standing opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, a move that could rock Washington's debate over how to revamp the nation's entitlement programs, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The decision, which AARP has not discussed publicly, came after a wrenching debate inside the organization. In 2005, the last time Social Security was debated, AARP led the effort to kill President George W. Bush's plan for partial privatization. AARP now concludes that change is inevitable, and it wants to be at the table to try to minimize the pain.
"The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens," according to John Rother, AARP's longtime policy chief and a prime mover behind its change of heart.
The shift, which was vetted by AARP's board and is now the group's stance, could have a dramatic effect on the debate surrounding the future of the federal safety net, from pensions to health care, given the group's immense clout.
At the same time, AARP runs the risk of alienating both its liberal allies, who vowed to fight any benefit cuts, and its 37 million members, many of whom were deeply opposed to such a move.
To win them over, AARP was preparing coast-to-coast town hall meetings to explain the problem and possible solutions.
In an early sign of its new approach, AARP declined to join a coalition of about 300 unions, women's groups and liberal advocacy organizations created to fight Social Security benefit cuts.
"The coalition's role was to kind of anchor the left, and our role is going to be to actually get something done," Rother said.
Leaders of the coalition, dubbed Strengthen Social Security, agreed that AARP's views would carry weight in Washington but predicted that the group would see a bigger backlash from its members than it expects.