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Sen. Ron Johnson makes rare appearance in Madison

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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks during a Rotary Club meeting at the Inn on the Park in Madison in August.

Nearly halfway through his six-year term as Wisconsin’s freshman U.S. senator, there is little Ron Johnson says that strays from the conservative, tea party message that got him elected to office.

He stayed true to that message Wednesday when he was the keynote speaker at the Downtown Madison Rotary Club meeting, making a rare visit to the state’s most progressive city.

Johnson joked about not being in his political element, telling the audience "I’m hoping there may be a few on the right-hand side" here.

Then he launched into a familiar PowerPoint presentation that he described as “depressing,” describing the federal government’s spiral into debt and overspending over the past 100 years.

“We've got way too many people in Washington who don’t want to admit we have a spending problem,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the $17 trillion in federal debt is putting the American dream of prosperity at risk. He said that figure amounts to roughly $52,000 per American, an amount that will only grow for the country’s youngest generation.

“I just want to grab America by the lapels and say, ‘Do you understand what you are doing to your kids?’” said Johnson, his fists clenched and shaking at the audience.

Johnson did have positive words about a dinner he and other conservatives in Congress shared with President Barack Obama, saying the conversations were “honest and frank.”

Johnson said everyone has good intentions when deciding the federal government should grow, for example, by providing more services and getting involved in financing college educations. And he sympathized with college graduates who are hamstrung with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt.

“Did all of our good intentions create harm?” he wondered.

He said those who want to stay out of poverty have the best chances of doing so if they graduate from high school, don’t get addicted to drugs and alcohol and don’t get pregnant out of wedlock.

When asked by an audience member during a question-and-answer session following his speech if he thought human activity was contributing to climate change, Johnson said, “I don’t have a belief on that either way.”

Johnson was also asked about a statement he made in a fundraising letter that accused the League of Conservation Voters of engaging in "environmental jihad."

The statement followed the first of two ads the league ran that criticized the senator for accepting roughly $109,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and opposing measures aimed at controlling global warming.

“I view myself as an environmentalist,” Johnson said. “But when you support policies that would cripple the economy... I consider those extreme policies. I care about the price of gas and the cost of energy.”

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