CT AARP joins debt ceiling lobbying fray

A phalanx of AARP staffers and volunteers, including two from Connecticut, fanned out across Capitol Hill yesterday to lobby lawmakers against making changes to Social Security or Medicare in any debt-ceiling deal.

The goal was straightforward, if not a political bank shot: “To get Social Security and Medicare off the table in the discussions about the debt ceiling,” said Laura Green, the state president of AARP Connecticut. “They are much too important to a whole lot of people to be thrown into the hopper in a crisis situation and to be resolved, or even to have a meaningful discussion about, in the context of the debt ceiling.”

Those two entitlement programs are already on the table, put there by President Barack Obama in his efforts to get Republicans to strike a grand bargain that will reduce the nation’s debt with a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. Those talks aren’t going so well right now, and the prospects for any grand bargain appear to be fading by the minute.

But the situation remains fluid and unpredictable, and Green and other seniors aren’t taking any chances. Green made the trip to Washington along with Brenda Kelley, the state executive director for AARP Connecticut, and they met with a handful of lawmakers from Connecticut.

“With our delegation, we do not feel we’re swimming uphill,” Green said.

To be sure, lawmakers like Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, have already stated clearly that they will not support any benefit cuts to Social Security or Medicare.

But what about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who has said any real debt reduction plan must include reductions to those coveted entitlement programs? Lieberman has joined with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in proposing a major overhaul to Medicare that would gradually raise the eligibility age for the program and increase co-pays paid by seniors for some services, among other things.

So how did that meeting go?

“It was very, very positive,” said Green. “He certainly listened to what we had to say and responded very positively to it.”

“You may look like you are in shock,” added Kelley. But “he really was.”

Kelley quickly noted that they did not ask him to drop his bill. “What we were asking is for him to not have this be part of the debt ceiling,” she said. “He didn’t tell us he would, but he didn’t tell us he wouldn’t.”

Lieberman promised that if there was any kind of grand bargain that included changes to the two programs and that he thought he could support, he’d loop back to them to discuss it with AARP.

“That was all I could hope to accomplish,” Kelley said.