AARP sounds alarm: Social Security must change

Washington woke up to a new political reality.

The nation's most powerful senior's group telling the Wall Street Journal it was ready to deal on cutting Social Security benefits. The AARP's policy chief John Rother admitting "some of our members will no doubt be upset."

So upset that within hours the AARP was insisting this was always their position, CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

"We can make changes that are modest and we can make changes with a great deal of lead time so we don't need to affect anyone who is currently retired today or near retirement," said said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy director.

But the group has long opposed such cuts.

As one of their ads says: "AARP has been working to preserve social security for more than 50 years."

Politicians on both sides were stunned.

"I think it's a very good thing," said Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired President Obama's fiscal commission. "I think they've recognized reality, that the trust fund of social security is operating in a substantial cash negative position."

Bowles' commission proposed trimming Social Security benefits for wealthy seniors and slowly increasing the retirement age to 69 by the year 2075 - incremental changes many lawmakers, like Republican Johnny Isakson, support.

"We could fix Social Security tomorrow just like they did in 1983 and not take a penny away from anybody but move the eligibility up to be more reflective of life expectancy," Isakson said.

But both parties have been reluctant to make those changes and risk angering the nation's most consistent voting bloc - seniors.

Said one senior: "Social Security is an insurance, it's not a gift, it's not welfare."

And that's where the AARP comes in. Its support for modest cuts could give lawmakers the political cover they need to fix Social Security at long last.

Why is AARP doing this now?

"Essentially it's because of the debt cutting talks that are going on right now on Capitol Hill led by Vice President Biden," Cordes explained. "Some proposals had been floated to bring Social Security into those talks to cut it as a way to bring down the debt and the AARP insists that Social Security should not be raided, that it didn't cause the debt and that it shouldn't be used to lower it."

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.