U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defended his votes on the bill that provided more health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and his pitch to classify Medicare and Social Security as discretionary spending.

The Oshkosh Republican told the American Legion’s National Convention in Milwaukee Tuesday his concerns over the bill President Joe Biden signed into law earlier this month were due to the national debt. He also said he wanted to vote on an amendment that would have allowed veterans waiting to receive health care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain care from the private sector.

Johnson in an 84-14 vote initially supported the measure, but after the House returned the bill with an amendment, Johnson in a 55-42 procedural vote moved to block the measure. Later in an 86-11 final vote, Johnson supported the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act.

Johnson Tuesday said he was concerned the PACT Act transferred $400 million from discretionary spending to mandatory spending.

“With our nation at $30.8 trillion in debt, that concerned us,” he said.

He added there never should have been doubt Congress would approve the measure and Biden would sign it.

“Now, the point I want to make in this discussion is the only thing that threatens veteran’s benefits; the only thing that threatens the mandatory spending programs; Social Security, Medicare, others, is our massive deficit spending and our growing level of debt,” he said.

Johnson also at the event defended his idea to give Congress oversight on Social Security and Medicare spending. The senator this summer proposed classifying the programs as discretionary spending rather than mandatory spending.

“Let me say unequivocally: I have never said I wanted to put Social Security, Medicare, veteran’s benefits on the chopping block or cut them,” he said. “I want to save these programs. I want to stop mortgaging our children’s future.”

Biden last week at a Democratic National Committee rally in Maryland blasted Johnson for proposing the change from mandatory to discretionary spending.

“He wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every single year,” Biden said.

Johnson, speaking to reporters after the speech, blasted Dem opponent Mandela Barnes for recording over 10 times as many hours of State Patrol security as former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

WisPolitics.com first reported in May 2019 that Barnes’ security costs had risen significantly compared to his predecessor. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday reported updated costs, including that Barnes has averaged 13.5 hours of State Patrol Dignitary Protection Unit details per day. On average, that costs taxpayers $660 per day. The Oshkosh Republican said that’s concerning.

“I would say that’s pretty much an abuse of state resources and taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars,” he said.

Barnes campaign spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel in an email to WisPolitics.com fired back at Johnson.

“Lt. Governor Barnes has gone above and beyond to ensure accountability and transparency with taxpayer dollars — unlike Ron Johnson, who is charging the taxpayers for trips between his ritzy Florida vacation house and DC while he tries to upend Social Security and votes against lowering costs for prescription drugs,” she said.

Barnes since taking office in 2020 has logged 14,370 hours of security details, while Kleefisch logged 1,377 hours during her four-year term.

Johnson also characterized Barnes’ campaign as built on a platform of lies and said his campaign represents the truth.

“I mean, this campaign really is truth versus lies and deception,” Johnson said. “I mean, Democrats can’t defend their policy, so the only way they can defeat me is by lying about me; distorting things I say.”

He added his main plan to beat Barnes in the November election is to be truthful.

“Right now, he’s got all these nice looking commercials out there making him look like a moderate,” he said. “He’s no moderate. He’s a radical leftist.”

Johnson also said he doesn’t feel like he’s the underdog to Barnes.

“I think it’s a dead-even race,” he said.

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