How strange is it for the AARP and the Republicans to be together on a Medicare bill that the Democrats are threatening to filibuster?

David Broder and Amy Goldstein say it was no accident.

AARP’s decision this week to endorse Medicare prescription drug legislation, a step that caught Democrats by surprise, was the product of years of cultivation by the Bush administration and top Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The dialogue that led to AARP’s seal of approval for the $400 billion measure, providing the first prescription drug benefit to seniors while opening the Medicare system to private insurance competition, included intense discussions in recent weeks with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and a private conversation between President Bush and AARP President James Parkel.

The AARP endorsement “didn’t happen overnight,” said Thomas A. Scully, administrator of the agency that runs Medicare. “We spent a lot of time working with them over the last three years.”


In general, AARP officials said, the bill is not perfect — but it provides the best chance in years to begin offering badly needed help to seniors in buying prescription drugs. At the end, the group pressed successfully for larger financial incentives to deter employers from dropping benefits for their retirees, additional assistance for low-income Medicare patients, and a promise that a controversial new system of price competition from private health plans in the program would be experimental, not permanent.

Historically, AARP has usually allied itself with the Democratic Party, which was instrumental in creating Social Security and Medicare, the twin pillars of economic security for the elderly. Conservatives financed alternative seniors organizations, hoping to contest AARP’s influence, but without notable success.

In 1995, then-Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a critic of AARP, held a hearing to publicize the group’s finances, which included $173 million in commissions on health, life and other insurance, mutual funds and prescription drugs, plus $86 million in government grants. Simpson said, “I’m not here to destroy the AARP, but I am here to get rid of hypocrisy and duplicity.”

But Gingrich said yesterday that a closer relationship began when Republicans took over the House and Senate in 1995 and continued with AARP’s hiring of Novelli in 1999.

Novelli had worked as a public relations adviser with both corporate and nonprofit clients, but in the decade before coming to AARP he had managed CARE, the private international relief agency, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Gingrich describes him as someone “who realizes that Medicare must be reformed at the same time it is protected and expanded. And he has said all along that the bill must be bipartisan to pass.”

Democrats suggested yesterday that Gingrich had swayed Novelli’s judgment, pointing to a passage in an introduction Novelli wrote for a Gingrich volume on health care published last year. One sentence reads, “Newt’s ideas are influencing how we at AARP are thinking about our national role in health promotion and disease prevention and in our advocating for system change.”

Gingrich said yesterday that he has had many discussions with Novelli about the current Medicare bill, but he said: “I have not been an intermediary. He is comfortable enough with Frist and Hastert that he did not need me.”

I’m not sold on the bill as good policy, but it is almost certainly good politics.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.