Interest groups mobilize as federal debt talks grind on

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Interest groups across the political spectrum have ramped up their publicity campaigns over reducing the federal debt, trying to mobilize voters to pressure their representatives and signaling lawmakers that they'll spotlight their records on this in the fall 2012 elections.

On Tuesday, the liberal group MoveOn.org released two radio ads attacking Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Lou Barletta, R-Pa., in their districts, saying they're "holding the economy hostage" during debt negotiations.

The day before, the conservative Club for Growth issued a "key vote alert" saying it strongly supports the Republican "cut, cap and balance" plan, which would require tough spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. President Chris Chocola, a former GOP congressman from Indiana, called it "the only plan that permanently handcuffs politicians from spending more money than they take in."

As the high-stakes, back-room negotiations over deficits and debt continued on Capitol Hill, interest groups trying to protect their favored programs took their campaigns to voters themselves.

"What we're fighting over is how the public perceives this," said Michael Ettlinger, the vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center.

Ettlinger said the center and allied groups were convincing the public that revenue increases should be part of any big deficit-reduction deal. He conceded, however, that conservative groups, too, had influenced negotiations.

"I think what both sides have done is stopped their leaderships from caving to the extremes on each side, which is why the deal is shrinking," he said.

Congress has been struggling for months over how to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit. While they disagree greatly on what outcomes they hope to see, lobby groups of every stripe intend to make lawmakers' stands on the question a big issue in 2012.

Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a conservative group with links to former Bush administration political guru Karl Rove, plans to spend $20 million this summer pushing its views.

In one of its ads, called "Shovel Ready," it blasted the Obama White House for "failure to improve the economy" despite the 2009 economic stimulus and other policies. The $5 million ad buy ran on national cable TV channels, as well as local stations in 10 swing states.

Such efforts aim not only to convince voters to vote Republican, but also serve as useful fundraising tools, said Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies campaign finance.

"Certain elements of the base get fired up over these sorts of things," he said.

Groups on all sides see the stakes as enormous. Many of them take their arguments directly to lawmakers.

At the annual conference Tuesday of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, panelists voiced fears that Medicare and Medicaid could face deep cuts in a deficit reduction package.

"We need to be soldiers in a battle," the association's CEO, Sandy Markwood, said as her audience prepared to lobby Capitol Hill on Wednesday. "What we're really doing here is battling the dismantlement of aging programs and the promises that older adults and caregivers have come to depend on."

Even if Congress raises the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline, many who are watching closely say the larger issues at play — including possibly restructuring Social Security and Medicare — aren't likely to be decided until 2013, after next year's elections.

Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group devoted to fiscal discipline, is one of them.

"While there's a lot of talk about doing a grand bargain now, it seems more likely that the really hard choices are going to be made after the next election," Bixby said.

(David Lightman contributed to this story.)

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