The folks at AARP -- 35 million of them age 50 and older -- are tired of waiting for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
So on Thursday, while Republican and Democratic lawmakers continued to argue over the details of a compromise bill to reform the Medicare program, the leaders of what used to be known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons upped the ante.
If the House-Senate conference committee produces a compromise bill that AARP's board of directors could support, the mammoth organization would spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising, grass-roots organizing and other activities to promote passage of a Medicare reform bill this year, said William D. Novelli, the group's executive director and chief executive.
And if Congress does not pass a Medicare bill? The group is prepared to empty its war chest, he said.
"There are going to be consequences," Novelli said, referring to "a major education campaign" that would target congressional incumbents in the 2004 elections.
"We are distressed," Novelli said. "There's been too much political talk and not enough action."
Novelli's veiled talk of promises and threats came as the administration used a Medicare speech by President Bush in Florida to stage a five-city outreach event, with some collaboration from AARP, and as the seniors' organization landed in the crosshairs of some unlikely critics: congressional Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he could not understand why AARP had "caved to the pressures" of Republican leaders in Congress.
Novelli, whose job before coming to AARP involved going after the tobacco companies, was unfazed.
"We are talking to everybody -- people on both sides of the aisle, the White House, labor unions, drug companies," he said. "What we're calling for is compromise. That's what these people are supposed to be doing."
Bush, speaking at a neighborhood center in Orlando, Fla., also called on Congress to get the job done.
"The choice is simple: Either we will have more debate, more delay and more deadlock, or we'll make real progress," he said. "I urge Congress to take the path of progress and give our seniors a modern Medicare system."
Beyond that, Bush's remarks offered no specific direction to congressional negotiators and largely echoed general comments he made at the White House two weeks ago. But White House officials arranged to broadcast the speech to groups of seniors gathered with administration health officials in five cities -- Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
At the invitation of the White House, AARP organized the "watch and listen" events at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and at a Cleveland movie theater. "It's just an opportunity for our members to learn where things stand," said Steve Hahn, a spokesman.
But Novelli and other AARP leaders said Thursday that the organization had not supported or endorsed a Republican-brokered tentative Medicare agreement.
"The AARP is interested in a bill that allows people to stay in a traditional Medicare plan and gives them an affordable drug benefit," said Byron Thames, a Florida physician and member of AARP's national board who attended Bush's speech in Orlando.
To win the group's support, a final bill must be bipartisan, Thames said. "It can't be a Republican bill and it can't be a Democratic bill."
Democratic senators, joined by representatives of other seniors' groups, said Thursday that the heart of a tentative compromise -- a Republican plan to require traditional Medicare to compete with private managed-care plans -- was unacceptable.
The pilot competition program, which could affect as many as a quarter of the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries, would "take Medicare apart," said Barbara B. Kennelly, president and chief executive of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
Later in the day, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) was joined by six other Republican senators, 30 Democrats and one independent in sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that complained about the size of the so-called competition demonstration project.
The group did not threaten to vote against final Medicare legislation if it included the large-scale pilot program, but they urged Frist "to remove this policy from the bill."
Novelli agreed that the scale of the competition project "probably is too large" but called it a "perfect example" of what lawmakers should negotiate.
"The key to this whole thing is if they sit around and argue about whether this thing is too large or too small, they're going to lose $400 billion in drug coverage that seniors desperately need," he said.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who reconvened the House-Senate negotiating committee Thursday, indicated that he was unhappy with the current competition provision. His committee is working with Republican leaders to hammer out the details of a final deal and is expected to vote Tuesday on a compromise bill.
In Florida on Thursday, Bush also attended two fund-raisers and added more than $2.5 million to his campaign coffers.
The first event, in Buena Vista, Fla., raised $860,000 during a luncheon for 600 people. Later, Bush flew to Fort Myers, Fla., where he attended a private fund-raiser at the home of Al Hoffman Jr., a real estate developer who was co-chairman of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. Campaign officials said the event would raise $1.7 million from about 700 guests.
Since June, the president has attended 35 fund-raising events and has raised about $100 million for his 2004 reelection campaign.
Times staff writers Nick Anderson in Washington and Maura Reynolds in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.