WASHINGTON — It's a bit like tangling with the National Rifle Association. The AARP has 40 million members, including nearly 940,000 in Washington state, it's a potent lobbying force in Washington, D.C., highly visible nationwide and its members vote more often than just about anyone else.
Even so, Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., says he has no intention of backing off the fight he's picked with AARP over its support for the health care overhaul narrowly passed by the House. Most recently, his staff asked the Washington state insurance commissioner if AARP should be regulated because of the supplemental Medicare insurance it offers.
"I'm just getting started," Reichert said in an interview.
Reichert has emerged as the leader of a group of House Republicans who have AARP in its sights.
But taking on an organization as powerful as AARP comes with political risks.
"Mass membership groups like the NRA and AARP can bring a lot of heat," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst whose Rothenberg Report is well known in political circles. "Getting in a fight with them is a calculated risk."
AARP officials say their group is nonpartisan, it doesn't have a political action committee, doesn't write checks to candidates and doesn't make endorsements.
"We don't operate that way," said David Sloane, AARP's senior vice president for government relations.
Rothenberg said he understands that, yet he believes there is little question AARP will let its members know about Reichert.
"They are a player, not just in this town but around the country," he said. "They have influence."
"Reichert strikes me as politically astute," the type of lawmaker who would figure the angles before taking on a group like AARP, Rothenberg said.
Reichert said there was no political calculation involved. He said that AARP was being "dishonest" with its members and had a "conflict of interest" in endorsing a health care bill that could drive more business to the supplemental Medicare insurance it has loaned its name to and receives royalties from.
"This has been going on for some time," he said. "Someone needs to take the bull by the horns. It is the right thing to do."
In a district that Democratic presidential candidates have won three straight times, Reichert has been a survivor. His wins have been narrow but have come despite being targeted by Democrats and liberal interest groups. If he decides to seek a fourth term next year, he will be targeted again. Reichert continues to be mentioned as a possible Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
Reichert's congressional district, which includes the Seattle suburbs east of Lake Washington, southern King County and parts of Pierce County, has about 104,000 AARP members.
The district has among the lowest percentage of seniors of any congressional district in the nation, with fewer than 20 percent of the voting age population over 60.
"Reichert's district is more Chamber of Commerce than seniors," said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for The Cook Report, another well-known political publication. "I don't think he is in immediate trouble. The Democrats have thrown everything at him but the kitchen sink."
Just because AARP supported the House bill doesn't mean a majority of seniors back it, Wasserman said, adding that some Democrats with a high number of seniors in their districts voted against the measure.
Wasserman said Reichert had earlier provided himself some "political cover" by being one of eight Republicans who supported climate change legislation that includes a "cap and trade" provision for greenhouse gasses.
AARP earned an estimated $650 million in royalties and others fees last year by lending its name to insurance policies, credits cards and other products. The organization does not actually sell insurance policies but helps market them to its members.
The House-passed health care bill would slice federal subsidies for a private-public Medicare supplemental program called Medicare Advantage. In turn, Reichert and others said, that would drive up demand for Medigap supplemental policies like those offered by AARP.
"You don't have to look too far to find the conflict of interest," Reichert said.
In e-mails to the office of the Washington insurance commissioner, Reichert's staff wanted to know if AARP needed to be regulated under state insurance laws. An official in the insurance commissioner's office, Gayle Pasero, company licensing manager, responded that AARP didn't qualify as an insurance company covered by state law.
Reichert said he will seek another opinion from outside legal experts.
AARP's Sloane said others, including Democrats, have previously tried to make the same allegations that Reichert has. In 2003, AARP came under fire when it endorsed a Republican prescription drug plan for seniors.
"He (Reichert) is following a well hewn path," Sloane said. "I don't think he will have much success."
Sloane said AARP is not an insurance company but has a "significant brand name" that it lends to certain products in exchange for royalties. The group's board of directors never considered the impact on it own products in deciding to endorse the House health care bill, Sloane said.
"The board never gave it a thought," he said.
Reichert will ask the House Ways and Means Committee to hold a hearing. He is also expected to meet with AARP executives later this month.
"He seems very tenacious about it," Sloane said. "That's his right."