Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a stalwart Senate ally of former President Trump, is facing fresh uncertainty in his race for reelection after telling a podcast last week that Social Security and Medicare should be classified as discretionary spending, with Congress authorized to set their budgets every year.
Johnson had been cruising to reelection in a favorable political climate for Republicans, who expected to take control of the House and possibly the Senate as well.
But now Johnson is on the defensive as Democrats have political ammo to claim that he wants to cut the two popular entitlement programs, a strategy they used effectively against Republicans in the past.
Johnson has landed in hot water before for making provocative comments on conservative media, most notably when he said he didn't feel threatened by protesters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, because he believed "those were people who love this country" while adding that he would have been "concerned" if they were Black Lives Matter protesters instead.
Now Johnson is being asked to defend his comments to "The Regular Joe Show" podcast calling for Congress to review and approve the annual budgets of Medicare and Social Security, instead of letting them rise automatically, which they do as mandatory spending programs.
Johnson is doubling down on his bold position, arguing that if Social Security and Medicare are left on autopilot, they will run out of money at some point.
And he says he's been calling for making Medicare and Social Security discretionary programs subject to an annual budget for years.
"I've been saying for as long as I've been here that we should transfer everything, put everything on budget so we have to consider it if every year. I've said that consistently, it's nothing new," he said. "I want to save it, I want to fix it. Right now we're whistling past the graveyard."
The Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, for example, is due to become insolvent by 2028.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) last month discussed increasing taxes on people who earn more than $400,000 annually in pass-through income to extend the solvency of the hospital fund until 2031, but the talks fell through.
Johnson said it's a "lie" and a "distortion" that he wants to put the programs on the "chopping block" as Democrats claim.
"I never said that, I never inferred that in any way shape or form. What I'd like to do is save the programs and the only way to save the programs is if you take a look at them," he said.
He says Congress needs to look at the solvency of the programs over the next decade and longer instead of let them continue to mount up debt.
Democrats say this is the political gift they needed to swing the momentum in a challenging Senate race that Johnson was favored to win.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) said Johnson has stepped on a political land mine.
"These are the programs that have taken several generations of seniors out of poverty," she said.
Baldwin noted that Johnson told Breitbart News Daily in an interview earlier this year that he viewed a 12-point plan unveiled by fellow Republican Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) calling for all federal legislation to sunset after five years as "a positive thing."
Johnson said he agreed with "most of it."
"Not only has he made those references," Baldwin said, referring to "The Regular Joe Show" podcast. "But back when Rick Scott put out his Republican agenda, which sort of abolished both of them and start over, Sen. Johnson had voiced support for that."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to tie Johnson's comments to House Republican candidates.
"Putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every year is no way to help working families - it is a way to devastate them. Unfortunately, most House Republicans agree with Sen. Johnson," Pelosi's office said on its blog.
Former longtime Fox News anchor Chris Wallace called Johnson's remarks "suicidal politics."
Ben Nuckels, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist, said Johnson had grabbed the "third rail" of American politics by calling for annual congressional review of Social Security and Medicare spending.
"Ron Johnson never misses an opportunity to stick his foot in his mouth. Johnson opened up this big new line of attack on his radical, extreme positions on Social Security that voters 55 and over are going to be acutely aware of," he said.
Nuckels projected that campaign attacks focused on Johnson's comments about Social Security and Medicare are going to resonate with older voters, who tend to show up to the polls more reliably in midterm election years.
"When you have 60 to 65 percent of the electorate above the age of 50, that's going to be a big problem for him," he said. "Johnson grabbed the third rail with both hands on that one."
A Senate Republican strategist said Johnson's latest comments on Social Security and Medicare are "not good from a campaign perspective."
But the source pointed out that Johnson still has a good chance of winning reelection because President Biden's approval rating has plummeted in Wisconsin and his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, is "a weak candidate."
"I'm not worried about Johnson," the strategist said. "Democrats will have to spend in other races to protect incumbents so that could be enough to put Ron John over the top."
Other Senate Republicans are distancing themselves from Johnson's call for Congress to have more discretionary authority over Medicare and Social Security spending.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said he did not know of any other Republicans who want to convert Social Security and Medicare to discretionary spending.
"I have not heard other members talk about that," he said. "I think the assumption always has been that those are programs, when you look at the overall federal spending, that are part of mandatory [spending.] They're considered entitlements. … If you're eligible and you qualify, you get the benefits."
One notable exception is Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who called for sunsetting all federal legislation in five years as part of his "Rescue America Plan."
"If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again," Scott said.
Democrats immediately attacked Scott and tried to tie his plan to Republicans running for the Senate and the House, a tactic made somewhat easier by Scott's chairmanship of Senate Republicans' campaign arm.
The political risk Scott's plan posed to Senate Republican candidates prompted Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to rebuke Scott at a leadership meeting earlier this year.
McConnell told reporters that he, not the Florida senator, would be setting the agenda if Republicans took over the majority.
"We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda," McConnell said in March.
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