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Inside Politics

GOP wins AARP endorsement

By Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When you turn 16, you get your driver's license. When you turn 50, you get your AARP card.

It's a rite of passage. But what does it mean politically? Not what it used to mean. Not since this week's political Play of the Week.

Seniors have become swing voters. Swinging seniors! Who knew?

You know what happens to swingers. Their partners leave them. This week, the AARP endorsed the Republicans' Medicare reform bill.

Congressional Republicans see a chance to score a breakthrough with seniors by delivering on their promise that President Bush stated in 2000 "that the Medicare system makes sure there's prescription drugs available for all seniors.''

The AARP sees a chance to score a new entitlement for seniors, even if it's not as generous as they'd like.

A line from an AARP "supports" ad states: "While it's not perfect, we know there are millions of Americans... who can't afford to wait for perfect."

Democrats are outraged. Entitlements are supposed to be their business.

"This is a Republican bill. Therefore, it's a bad bill," said Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt at an AARP forum.

They see evil forces at work.

On Wednesday, Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi said, "I want you to know that Bill Novelli, the CEO of AARP, wrote the forward to Newt Gingrich's book. He wrote the preface to the book. Did you know that?"

Congressional Republican leaders have spent years cultivating the AARP in hopes of wooing them away from the Democrats. This week, the payoff came.

"I don't think the Democrats are going to stand between $400 billion of benefits going to seniors," declared Republican majority leader Sen. Bill Frist.

Oh yeah?

"We estimate that about one quarter of all senior citizens will be worse off virtually the day this bill passes," said Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle.

House Democrats officially oppose the bill ... which they say also opens the door to privatization of Medicare. If it fails, Democratic supporters warn, Republicans can blame them.

"Unnecessary partisan politics would be the only thing that could kill this legislation," said Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana.

The AARP stands with the GOP. For the AARP, it's a risk. For the GOP, it's the political Play of the Week.

Back in 1989, the AARP supported catastrophic insurance coverage under Medicare.

Seniors objected to paying a new tax for something most of them already had. They went into revolt. Remember the famous photo of angry seniors attacking House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski in his car?

That's the risk the AARP is taking by endorsing this bill.

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