DECATUR -- About two years after he first called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, now appears to be gaining the support of his constituents.
Speaking to about 100 people -- nearly all white and conservative -- at the Decatur Public Library, Johnson received a burst of applause Wednesday evening when he again called for an end to U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.
Johnson also suggested gradually raising the retirement age to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and said he was willing to look at revenue measures, not just budget cuts, to reduce the federal deficit.
The six-term congressman criticized Democrats for not being willing to make cuts in federal spending and hit Republicans for supporting only "cuts in non-defense discretionary spending."
"That is not acceptable, ladies and gentlemen," said Johnson. "I understand there are people in here who are going to vehemently disagree with me and who believe that every war is a good war. The reality is that by the time we will have completed our quote-unquote mission -- and I don't know what the mission is, ladies and gentlemen -- we will have spent close to 4 trillion dollars in those wars.
"We cannot exclude defense from the cuts in dealing with our national debt."
Johnson said he doesn't believe his constituents "are one iota safer because we're losing thousands of American men and women, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Libya and Iraq."
"I have consistently voted in appropriation after appropriation and bill after bill to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya," he said. It was at that point and during other statements about defense spending that Johnson received his only sustained applause during the meeting.
"We can't afford it in our men and women's lives, we can't afford it in our infrastructure, and we can't afford it fiscally," he said of the wars.
Following the meeting, Johnson said he was surprised by the response.
"But generally in the public and even among the conservative base, people are starting to say, why are we here? Why are we spending the money? Why are we allowing men and women to be killed for a mission we cannot define? I think it's critical to our economic and moral future that we get out tomorrow, and that we don't engage in some new stupid war the next time. I'm just quoting the president."
On other issues, Johnson said:
-- He thinks Social Security and Medicare can be strengthened by gradually raising the retirement age.
"To prevent the system from going bankrupt, there have to be modest changes for new workers in the system," he said. "For people who are entering the system tweaking the age of retirement, when it has stayed the same for decades, makes economic sense. Relatively small changes in the retirement age have a dramatic effect on the fiscal soundness of Social Security. I'm not suggesting we move the age to 75, but moving it to 67 1/2 over a phased-in period makes economic sense and moral sense."
He also said he wouldn't rule out the need for higher contributions into the system.
"I'm not ruling anything out but what I'm ruling in is the fact that we have to make common-sense, fair changes to preserve the safety net," he said. "If we don't do that there's going to be no Social Security, no Medicare for the future."
-- He is not ruling out the need for revenue measures to cut into the federal budget deficit.
"The revenue side of the equation has to be examined. There are a number of tax loopholes that exist now, some tax breaks that are being phased out that I support phasing out and others that I don't. I think we need to look at the whole picture. I don't think you can responsibly look at the debt crisis we face without looking at every aspect of ways to solve it."