GREEN BAY -- U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson charged Friday Dem rival Russ Feingold or his then-Senate office received information about problems at the Tomah VA while he was a senator but did not care enough to act.
Feingold fired back, accusing Johnson of repeating a charge he knows isn't true and saying the problems at the medical center, which included opioid overprescription and a Marine Corps veteran dying of an overdose, happened on Johnson's watch.
Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, said during Friday's debate he immediately acted on the Tomah VA problems when he became aware of them. He said his committee's investigation of the issue uncovered and made public more information in three months than a three-year inspector general probe.
"Because of my investigation, because of my hearings, because of our reports, we've actually held those people accountable," Johnson said.
But Feingold or his office, Johnson said, was "repeatedly advised" of the problems before the Middleton Dem left the Senate.
"Was that simply because his staff didn't care or Senator Feingold didn't?" Johnson said.
Feingold fired back, saying "it's a sad moment when a senator from Wisconsin says something he knows for sure is not true."
Feingold said testimony before Johnson's committee "made it very clear that my office never received anything of the kind” and the death of a Marine from a lethal mix of prescriptions happened in 2014, “under Senator Johnson's watch.”
"So this a sad moment when somebody who knows for sure that something is untrue repeats it because he's a politician who's trying to get re-elected,” Feingold said. “It's awful."
Meeting for the first time in their rematch, the two also sparred over their respective presidential nominees, background checks for gun purchases, the Affordable Care Act, college affordability and paid family leave.
They fielded questions from a panel as part of the debate sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and moderated by Jill Geisler, a member of the WBA Hall of Fame.
Asked if they stand “100 percent” behind their party nominees, Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said he has been consistent in supporting areas of agreement with Donald Trump, such as growing the economy, defeating ISIS and appointing judges instead of “super legislators.” Johnson also said he hasn’t been shy in disagreeing with Trump, who he referred to as “our candidate," and said he would not “defend the indefensible,” referencing past comments by the businessman.
He pivoted to slamming Feingold for supporting the Dem nominee, saying he “must be about the last American who thinks Hillary Clinton is trustworthy.”
“I will hold whoever is president accountable,” he said.
Feingold fired back supporting Trump is “completely irresponsible” because he lacks the qualifications and temperament to be president. Feingold challenged Johnson to renounce his support for Trump, noting other GOP Senate candidates across the country already have.
“This is one of these times when you have to be an American first, not a politician running for office, not a Republican or a Democrat, but an American who’s worried about the future of our great country,” Feingold said.
On guns: Johnson said additional gun control laws don’t make the country more safe. If they did, he argued, Chicago wouldn’t have the problems it does.
He pivoted on a question about making the country safer while protecting gun rights to calling for the defeat of ISIS. That, he argued, would help prevent lone wolf attacks such as those in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla.
“Additional gun control is not the answer. Defeating ISIS is,” Johnson said.
Feingold hit Johnson on background checks for gun sales at shows and over the Internet. He also knocked his opponent over a bill U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered to allow the Justice Department to block people on two terror lists from purchasing firearms. The legislation included a provision allowing those denied a gun to appeal if they were wrongly included on one of the lists.
Johnson touted an alternative he wrote that sought to put the burden on government to stop a gun sale rather than requiring a buyer to appeal a rejected sale.
But Feingold said Collins believed Johnson’s proposal gutted hers.
“Because Sen. Johnson has no independence from the National Rifle Association, this bipartisan effort failed,” Feingold said.
On the Affordable Care Act: Feingold accused Johnson of wanting to roll back provisions in the health care bill that would mean 20 million people losing their coverage.
Feingold said he’s heard from people who, for example, had cancer and couldn’t get insurance before Obamacare because they had a pre-existing condition. Young adults can now stay on their parents’ health care plans until they’re 26, there’s more coverage for mental health issues and treatment for opiate addiction.
Feingold said the law is not perfect, but Johnson is “obsessed” with getting rid of it. That includes a “frivolous” lawsuit Johnson filed challenging the Obama administration rule allowing the federal government to subsidize health insurance for lawmakers and some congressional staffers.
“He is litigating rather than trying to work with other members of the Senate to say, ‘How can we make this better?” Feingold said.
Johnson countered focusing on what he called the lies of Obamacare, such as if people like their doctors, they can keep them. He pointed to Feingold’s past comments the health care law was not as bad as some people believed before noting stories of two people who he said have struggled under the law. That includes a woman featured in a recent TV ad who said she had to go from a part-time job to full-time work just to afford her premiums.
Johnson said Feingold “promised that wasn’t going to happen.”
“He lied to the Wisconsin voters,” Johnson charged.
On college affordability: Feingold says he supports retaining the federal student loan program and allowing those with student loand debt to refinance. He noted Johnson voted against a proposal that would have allowed that.
"Where is the concern about the terrible position these young people are being placed in?" Feingold said.
Johnson said the cost of college has increased 2.6 times the rate of inflation since the 1960s and pegged Feingold as part of the problem.
"I think everybody has to asks themselves what in the world is so different about what colleges and universities send their money on that their costs would increase by that level," Johnson said. "Well, Senator Feingold's actually Exhibit A of how that happens when he basically charged $8,000 per lecture as a lecturer at Stanford University."
Johnson noted there are already 38 programs to help students repay loans and that the plan Feingold's supports would cost $50 billion and add to the deficit.
Paid family leave: Johnson turned the question into one for voters: Do they want more regulations that feed a “massive, bloated government,” or “your paycheck feeding your family.”
Johnson said economic growth has been stagnated by over-regulation, and a government mandate adding paid family leave would be another factor weighing on wage growth by increasing costs to employers.
Johnson noted Trump has proposed creating a leave program that would utilize tax credits, saying he’d prefer that kind of approach.
“I want to build the private sector, leaving more money in your pocketbook. Sen. Feingold wants to grow government,” Johnson said, adding his Dem rival voted 278 times to raise taxes.
Feingold countered Johnson’s position is emblematic of a senator who prefers to talk about his own positions rather than listening to his constituents on their views. Feingold said he’s heard from voters who are having a hard time making ends meet and want things like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave. He argued it’s good for not only the parents and the child, but the business, which sends a message to employees it values them.
“It really is a shame that instead of siding with the families of this state that are making this request, Sen. Johnson will only go with a position that is oriented toward a corporate view,” Feingold said.
-- By David Wise
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with more from the debate.