Kennelly puts herself in the thick of entitlement fight

WASHINGTON–At 74, Barbara Kennelly decided to give up her job as CEO of a major Washington lobbying organization.

The reason? So she could jump into the trenches of a blistering political fight–the one now brewing in Washington over entitlement reform–as a lobbyist for Social Security Works, another D.C. advocacy group.

“This way I can really concentrate on the Hill and the two subjects I’m very interested in,” the former Connecticut congresswoman said in a recent interview.

The “two subjects” Kennelly was referring to are Medicare and Social Security–the popular government programs that are now part of a broader brouhaha over the spiraling federal debt.

These aren’t new topics for Kennelly, who spent the last nine years as head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an influential advocacy organization. Before that, she represented Connecticut’s 1st Congressional district and sat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, carving out a niche on Social Security and other safety-net programs in the House.

In taking the post at Social Security Works, Kennelly is moving down a few notches, from boss to lieutenant. But Kennelly said the NCPSS post was too much administrative work and not enough straight lobbying.

“I was president and chief executive officer for an organization that had 50 employees and had 3 million members and supporters,” she said. “I was working night and day.”

This way, she still gets to have a hand in one of today’s biggest political fights, and enjoy a little down time.

“I’ve got 12 grandchildren. I should see them once in a while,” she said. With this new job, “I’m just limiting my battles.”

She stepped down from the NCPSS on April 14th and started the next day with Social Security Works, which is a coalition of labor unions, civil rights groups, and other liberal organizations. In the current debate over raising the debt limit–and whether to tie in broader fiscal reform, including changes to Medicare and Social Security–Kennelly said she didn’t feel like she could miss a beat.

Medicare, in particular, has been the subject of a political firefight in recent weeks. House Republicans have called for transforming the plan into a voucher system, replacing the defined-benefit program that now reimburses providers for seniors’ health care services with subsidies for seniors to purchase private insurance.

Democrats have blasted the GOP plan, as they seek different ways to address the spiraling budget deficits. The fight over Medicare boiled over this week in Washington, as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., abandoned bipartisan deficit-reduction talks in part because of an impasse over Medicare cuts.

Kennelly said the House GOP voucher plan would be “extremely detrimental” to seniors. She’s not too keen on the talk out of the White House either, where President Barack Obama has embraced the possibility of triggered cuts to a range of domestic programs if Congress fails to agree on other steps to achieve deficit reduction targets.

“There’s a lot on the table,” she said. “And then you mix in the debt ceiling vote,” and it’s shaping up to be a volatile political standoff, she said.

Asked about the recent Medicare trustees’ report, showing the program will run out of money by 2024, Kennelly said there’s no question that Medicare’s finances need to be shored up. She noted that seniors are already feeling the pinch, as their premiums and co-pays escalate because of spiraling health care costs.

“More and more, the Social Security check is now going to pay for Medicare,” she said. For the average senior, Social Security income is $14,000 a year. “If you keep taking more and more of the Social Security check for Medicare payments, it’s going to be very difficult for seniors” to get by, Kennelly said.

But cutting or even tweaking Medicare should be off the table, she argued, saying enough of that was done in the health care reform bill. Lawmakers should look at other sectors of the health care economy to trim costs, which will ripple back to reduce Medicare expenditures.

She said her new job has given her a laser-like focus. And she won’t be retreating anytime soon.

“I have no intention of retiring, none whatsoever,” she said.