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At edge of cliff, everyone out to protect a piece of the pie

Nov 28, 2012 - McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- As Washington debates how to trim runaway federal budget deficits without going over a "fiscal cliff" of immediate tax increases and automatic spending cuts, special interest groups are mounting aggressive campaigns to make sure that they're not the ones who have to pay the price.

Defense companies, health care providers, public broadcasting and even national parks enthusiasts are warning that cuts to their interests would cost jobs and hurt consumers. Some say that all entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security should be off-limits. So, too, should be federal aid to education. And tax breaks for contributions to charity. Others say the wealthy should shoulder the burden.

Several unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association, launched an advertising campaign Tuesday in five states -- Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- urging tax increases on higher incomes. AARP, the massive group of older Americans, is planning a "Lobby Day" next month. And others are mobilizing.

Their key message is that the top tax rates on individual income above $200,000 and family income over $250,000 need to go up. They also want to ensure that entitlement programs -- Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security -- are protected in any kind of a "grand bargain" between President Barack Obama and Congress.

"We need a balanced approach to the nation's fiscal challenges which protects the benefits provided by these programs, continues the middle-class tax cuts, invests in job creation and asks wealthier individuals to pay their fair share," said Chuck Loveless, AFSCME federal government affairs director. The union wants Medicare, Medicaid and education protected from cuts.

AARP, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, is working to ward off any cut in benefits in the programs that aid the elderly and the poor.

"Our biggest concern is that the end-of-the-year debate may look to Medicare and Social Security to make cuts," said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy counsel. The possibilities on the table include reducing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits this year, raising Medicare eligibility from age 65 by one or two years, and requiring co-pays on some Medicare benefits.

Others are pushing for changes in those same programs.

In a letter to Congress signed by more than 200 businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that lawmakers should extend all of the expiring tax cuts, including those for income above $200,000, and turn instead to entitlement programs. "Our nation's entitlement programs are unsustainable. If we do not make sensible reforms, the programs will go bankrupt -- and so will the nation," said the letter.

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