AARP, the powerful lobby for older Americans, was hammered Friday by fellow activists for refusing to oppose any and all cuts to Social Security benefits, a position the group says it has long held as a way to extend the life of the massive retirement and disability program.
The group, which has 37 million Americans as members, adamantly opposes cutting Social Security benefits to help reduce the federal budget deficit, said David Certner, the organization's director of legislative policy. But for years AARP has acknowledged that cuts to future benefits may be necessary to improve the program's finances, he said.
"Our policy for decades has always been that we basically support a package that would include revenue enhancements and benefit adjustments to get Social Security to long-term solvency," Certner said. "That has been our policy stated over and over again for, I mean, literally it has to be two decades, now."
However, the issue gained major notice Friday as White House and congressional leaders continued to negotiate ways to reduce government red ink. Social Security has not been a part of those talks. Instead, negotiators have focused on potential cuts to Medicare, the government health insurance program for older Americans.
In the midst of that, The Wall Street Journal quoted AARP's longtime policy chief, John Rother, saying the agency was dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits.
"The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens," The Journal quoted Rother as saying.
Certner said the story was inaccurate, that AARP's views were long held. Nevertheless, the story set off a firestorm among Social Security advocates, who roundly criticized AARP as selling out seniors. Most advocacy groups oppose all cuts to Social Security benefits, even those that would affect only future generations, such as an increase in the retirement age.
"AARP is losing the confidence of seniors around the country, and not just seniors but people of every age group," said Max Richtman, acting CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "I hope the ship that he wants to be steer isn't the Titanic filled with seniors."
Ed Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said, "AARP does not speak for all seniors, and on this topic probably not many of their own members."
Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of about 300 groups, accused AARP of trying to win an influential seat at the negotiating table when lawmakers tackle Social Security.
"AARP is positioning itself as an inside dealmaker that's open to benefit cuts when in fact it should be educating the public about the need to selectively improve the one economic security retirement institution that works quite well," Kingson said. "Even if one believes that some ground may have to be ceded on Social Security, it's terrible negotiation strategy to signal a willingness to compromise before negotiations are joined."
Rother was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment, said AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns. Instead, AARP made Certner available for numerous interviews and released a statement by CEO A. Barry Rand.
"Let me be clear _ AARP is as committed as we've ever been to fighting to protect Social Security for today's seniors and strengthening it for future generations," Rand said in the statement. "Contrary to the misleading characterization in a recent media story, AARP has not changed its position on Social Security."
"Our focus has always been on the human impact of changes, not just the budget tables," Rand added. "We have maintained for years _ to our members, the media and elected officials _ that long-term solvency is key to protecting and strengthening Social Security for all generations, and we have urged elected officials in Washington to address the program's long-term challenges in a way that's fair for all generations."
Social Security's finances face long-term problems because the massive retirement and disability system is being hit by a wave of retiring baby boomers. Last year, the program started paying out more money in benefits than it collected in payroll taxes.
Social Security's actuaries say the trust funds that support the program will be drained by 2036 unless Congress acts. At that point, the system will collect enough in payroll taxes to pay about 77 percent of benefits. Between now and 2036, the government will have to borrow to meet Social Security's obligations because the money held in reserve has been spent on other programs.
Most experts say they expect any long-term fix to include tax increases and benefit cuts, though the cuts are likely to be limited to future retirees. The issue is deadlocked at present because many Democrats in Congress adamantly oppose benefit cuts while nearly all Republicans oppose tax increases.
Advocates have successfully thwarted efforts to include Social Security in the budget talks in Washington, making it unlikely the program will be addressed before the 2012 presidential elections.
Certner said AARP had planned to begin a series of town-hall events around the country earlier this year to start talking with seniors about potential changes to Social Security to improve its long-term finances. Those talks were delayed _ and have not been re-scheduled _ because the group does not want to Social Security to become part of the budget talks in Washington, Certner said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday, "The president supports measures to strengthen Social Security but does not support anything that would slash benefits for future generations."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wants to include Social Security in any long-term budget talks. He said AARP's position should cause others to rethink their opposition.
"I think it took a lot of courage on their part to look at the facts and then say, `We're going to stop our present position, and we're going to work to solve the problems for Social Security,'" Coburn said. "It would seem that they have recognized how severe the problem is."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont, said he was bothered by AARP's position but not surprised. "AARP is a fairly conservative seniors' organization," Sanders said.
AARP has a broad membership of people with many political views, Certner said.
The organization was a strong voice in defeating former President George W. Bush's proposal to privatize some aspects of Social Security. But the group supported Bush's successful effort to start a Medicare prescription drug program, which many liberal groups opposed because they thought it was too generous to drug makers.
AARP declined to join the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, which includes many liberal groups and labor unions.
"We generally aren't part of coalitions because we want to make sure we can control our own message on Social Security, which obviously we're not doing a very good job of today," Certner said.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.