WASHINGTON — AARP, the lobbying powerhouse for older Americans, made a dramatic concession last year. Amid a national debate over whether to overhaul Social Security, the group said for the first time it was open to cuts in benefits.
The backlash from AARP members and liberal groups that oppose changes in the program was enormous — and this time around, as Washington debates how to tame the ballooning federal debt, AARP is opposed to any benefit reductions for the nation’s retirees.
AARP’s rejection of any significant changes to the nation’s safety net could be a major factor as policy makers seek a deal to put the government’s finances in order through raising taxes and cutting spending on federal programs, possibly including popular entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
Republicans say scaling back Social Security and Medicare, the largest drivers of future government deficits, is necessary. President Obama has been open to benefit cuts.
But for lawmakers who would have to vote for such changes, AARP’s 37 million members and $1.3 billion budget are a force to be reckoned with. Over the past eight months, AARP has sponsored debates, run television ads, circulated questionnaires, and held more than 4,000 meetings to mobilize its legion of supporters to oppose any cuts.
Under the slogan ‘‘You’ve earned a say,’’ the group has been building opposition to entitlement changes.
‘‘We’re fighting to stop cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that will hurt beneficiaries,’’ said AARP’s top lobbyist, Nancy LeaMond.
Leading bipartisan proposals to reduce the federal debt have proposed changes to entitlement programs, including raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and adopting a stingier formula to determine Social Security payments.
Both proposals were discussed during secret negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, in summer 2011 during efforts to resolve the country’s debt ceiling crisis.
Those talks collapsed without a final agreement. But many political observers expect the proposals to surface again as Democrats and Republicans try to reach a deal over averting the ‘‘fiscal cliff’’ — the government spending cuts and tax increases set to kick in at the beginning of next year.
AARP opposes raising the age for Medicare eligibility on the grounds that it would increase costs for younger seniors while driving up premium costs for older ones. The group opposes efforts to shrink Social Security cost-of-living increases, which it says would cost older seniors thousands of dollars a year in benefits.