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US Sen. Ron Johnson stands by Medicare, Social Security remarks after being called out by President Joe Biden

Johnson wants to require annual votes on funding Medicare and Social Security with the rest of the federal budget

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Sen. Ron Johnson is seen in between people sitting in a crowd as he speaks.
Sen. Ron Johnson speaks at an event Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Union Grove, Wis., at the Racine County Fairgrounds. Angela Major/WPR

A day after he was called out by President Joe Biden, Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson reiterated his support for taking annual votes on funding Medicare and Social Security, calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” in the process.

The back-and-forth followed Biden’s State of the Union Address Tuesday night when he attacked Republicans for endangering the programs, prompting many GOP lawmakers to heckle the president.

It also reinforced Johnson’s status as a political lightning rod in Wisconsin, a state where he was narrowly reelected to the U.S. Senate just three months ago, and where if he seeks another term, it would be six years before he’s on the ballot again.

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The exchange between Biden and Republicans this week was reminiscent of one that took place last August during the final months of Johnson’s 2022 Senate campaign. Under federal law, Medicare and Social Security are known as “mandatory spending,” meaning their funding is automatically renewed each year. Johnson called for changing that, arguing their funding should be voted on each year by Congress along with the rest of the budget.

He re-upped that position in January as Republicans were sparring with Biden over raising the nation’s debt limit, telling reporters that when it comes to the budget, lawmakers should look at “everything, every year.”

During an event at a union training center in DeForest Wednesday, Biden called out Johnson, repeating his “everything, every year” comment. As Biden remarked, “Come on, man,” supporters booed.

In a statement to Fox News, Johnson accused Biden of lying about him. But in an interview with WISN-AM in Milwaukee Thursday morning, Johnson stood by his plan, saying it was time to change the way Medicare and Social Security are funded.

“We’ve got to put everything on-budget so we’re forced to prioritize spending,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean putting on the chopping block. That doesn’t mean cutting Social Security. But it does mean prioritizing.”

Johnson also said the current structure of Social Security is unsustainable.

“It’s a legal Ponzi scheme,” Johnson said, echoing an argument he first made in his 2010 Senate campaign, one he’s repeated during his dozen years in office.

Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University, said Biden’s decision to attack Johnson and other Republicans on Medicare and Social Security now is partly due to the ongoing debt ceiling debate. She said it’s a different approach to the one former President Barack Obama took when he largely negotiated with Republicans over the debt ceiling.

“Biden seems to do better when he is juxtaposed against the other party,” Azari said. “On his own, it seems like he’s kind of not the most exciting politician. In that sort of back and forth and drawing that contrast on popular issues? That’s where he finds his political bread and butter.”

Azari said there’s an added benefit to the president when it comes to talking about Medicare and Social Security since some Republicans — like Johnson — are outspoken about the need to consider everything when balancing the budget, while other Republicans are adamant that entitlement spending shouldn’t be touched.

“Biden is playing politics in a fairly likely to be effective playbook,” Azari said. “You take the issues that unify your party and divide the other party.”

While Wisconsin was Biden’s first stop after the State of the Union, he continued the same themes in a visit to Florida Thursday. There, he criticized Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott over Scott’s proposal to require votes every five years to reauthorize Medicare and Social Security.

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