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Seniors' old friend turns foe, for some

Many retirees criticize the AARP on Medicare - a sign that the advocacy group's clout is under new scrutiny.

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Senior citizens in the cavernous Senate Caucus Room - once the scene of hearings on the sinking of the Titanic - this week heartily booed the organization that is arguably the flagship in Washington's fleet of powerful lobbying groups.

The meeting, while focused on a controversial Medicare deal making its way through Congress, also revealed a growing rift among seniors over the AARP - once known as the American Association of Retired Persons - as well as the strategy for improving healthcare for seniors.

More than 500 seniors hissed at the mention of pharmaceutical companies and at another backer of the proposed prescription drug plan: former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once called for an end to the Medicare system altogether.

But when the AARP came up, they roared disapproval. "Down with the AARP!" the crowd shouted. "I'm shocked and outraged and I want to give up my membership," says Bill Toto, a retired teacher from Huntington, Long Island. He added, repeating a claim by Democratic lawmakers who organized the rally: "They're in the drug and insurance business and they stand to gain."

On one level, the scene was skewed. These seniors were a select group, bused in by labor unions to protest the Medicare drug plan and cheer its Democratic critics. But it also signals deeper rifts within the senior community going into this fight, expected to come to a House vote Friday.

Old allies diverge

For decades, the 35-million strong AARP has been the most reliable ally of Democrats on Medicare issues. They were present at the creation of the Medicare system in 1965 and lobbied hard to expand the system to include prescription drugs - a move they said should cost at least $750 billion over the next 10 years.

The $400 billion plan announced this week falls far short of that goal. But national AARP leaders say it's the best seniors can do for now, and are backing that claim with a $7 million media campaign: "The proposed prescription drug Medicare bill isn't perfect. But millions of Americans can't afford to wait for perfect."

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