Republican Sen. Ron Johnson this week endorsed a proposal to "coax" seniors out of retirement to address so-called worker shortages, drawing backlash from his Democratic opponent and other critics who noted the GOP lawmaker's long history of attacking Social Security.
"There are a number of innovative ideas I would support," Johnson, R-Wis., said during a tele-town hall with constituents on Wednesday as he's locked in a close reelection race with Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes in the key battleground state of Wisconsin.
"Former Senator Phil Gramm came to the Senate, we were talking about our labor shortage, and one of his suggestions was to coax seniors that could reenter the workforce—don't charge them payroll tax," Johnson said in remarks first reported by the Heartland Signal. "They're not paying it anyway so if they want to get back and earn a few extra bucks, let them start working."
The Republican senator's comments came weeks after he sparked outrage by suggesting that funding for Social Security and Medicare should be discretionary rather than mandatory, a change that would pave the way for cuts or the complete demise of the popular programs.
Barnes, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor, was quick to respond to Johnson's latest remarks, slamming his opponent for "waging a war on our seniors and the benefits they've worked towards their entire lives."
"Ron Johnson's solution to the labor shortage: send seniors back to work," Barnes said in a statement Thursday, noting that Johnson has voted to raise the retirement age from 65 to 70.
Social Security Works, a progressive advocacy group, also denounced Johnson's comments on social media.
"This is the same senator who wants to turn Social Security into 'discretionary spending,'" the group tweeted Thursday. "Ron Johnson thinks that working-class Americans don't deserve to retire. That's why he's trying to steal our earned benefits."
Survey data released in recent days shows that Barnes is out to a narrow lead over Johnson in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate contest, which could play a pivotal role in determining control of the upper chamber.
"On Sunday, the Trafalgar Group released the results of a survey of Wisconsin voters conducted between August 22 and August 25. Barnes led Johnson 49.4% to 47.1%," Wisconsin Public Radio reported earlier this week. "Just more than 3% of those surveyed were undecided. Barnes' lead was within the poll's 2.9% margin of error."
"A Fox News poll released August 18 had Barnes with 50% of the support of likely voters and Johnson trailing with 46%," the outlet added. "The Democrat's lead was just outside the survey's 3% margin of error."