WASHINGTON ― Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed deep reservations on Tuesday about President Donald Trump’s nominee to be director of the Office of Management and Budget, grilling him over support for defense cuts, the 2013 government shutdown and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Although many Democratic senators also aggressively questioned the nominee, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), McCain’s contentious exchange with the fiscal conservative was the first sign that Mulvaney might face obstacles to confirmation.
If every member of the Senate Democratic caucus votes against Mulvaney, just three Senate Republicans would need to abandon him to sink his candidacy.
McCain confirmed in a Wednesday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was “leaning against” voting for Mulvaney over concerns the South Carolina congressman would continue to pursue defense cuts.
On Tuesday, McCain asked Mulvaney, a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, to explain several votes to cut defense spending in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
After several instances in which Mulvaney expressed uncertainty over whether he had voted for specific pieces of legislation cutting defense spending or withdrawing troops based in Europe, McCain grew frustrated.
“Boy, I’ll tell ya, I would remember if I voted to cut our defenses the way you did, congressman. Maybe you don’t take it with the seriousness that it deserves,” McCain said.
“I’m not interested in playing semantic games with you,” McCain added. “I’m interested in what our military needs and what it receives. It’s clear from your record that you’ve been an impediment to that for years.”
McCain was equally unsparing in his questioning of Mulvaney’s support for the 2013 government shutdown precipitated by a band of conservative House Republicans hell-bent on defunding the Affordable Care Act.
“Did you make statements in support of the shutdown during the shutdown?” McCain asked.
“I made statements in support of the House bill to keep the government open,” Mulvaney replied.
“Which you knew would not succeed because it wasn’t going to pass the U.S. Senate,” McCain shot back.
“I don’t pretend to know, sir, what the Senate chooses to do,” Mulvaney claimed, eliciting a chuckle from McCain. McCain later encouraged Mulvaney to visit the Grand Canyon, where he said food needed to be airlifted to the concessions stands as a result of the shutdown.
Finally, McCain delivered a stinging rebuke to Mulvaney for voting to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which McCain called “crazy.”
“All I can say, sir, is I am deeply concerned about your lack of support for the military, about your continued votes for withdrawals from Europe when we see a world on fire, withdrawing combat teams ― what were you thinking, honestly, when you voted for an immediate withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan? Help me out here,” McCain said.
Mulvaney’s explanation, which involved hearing the concerns of a father in his district whose son was serving in Afghanistan, did not allay McCain’s shock.
Overall, it was a tumultuous day for Mulvaney, whose status as one of the most conservative members of the House Republican conference has created enemies for him on both sides of the aisle.
While McCain’s objections could have the greatest consequences for his confirmation on the Senate floor, Democrats were eager to use the hearings to score political points.
In an earlier hearing at the Senate Budget Committee, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) focused on his support for Social Security and Medicare cuts in contradiction of Trump’s promises to protect the programs. Responding to Stabenow, Mulvaney even stood by past comments comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), also on the budget committee, got Mulvaney to all but admit that Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s 2009 crowd. His comments were not enough, however, to reassure Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, who demanded to know whether Mulvaney would resign rather than lie at Trump’s behest.
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a budget committee member, got Mulvaney to concede that he does not consider climate change a major danger to society.
Mulvaney even caught grief for the recent revelation that he owed $15,000 in unpaid payroll taxes for a babysitter he employed for several years. Mulvaney, who claims to have discovered the discrepancy while completing a nomination questionnaire and subsequently repaid the amount and penalties, chalked it up to an innocent mistake.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was not buying his explanation.
“I am of course troubled by your failure to pay taxes and comply with the law over a period of several years,” she said. “And it’s simply not credible to me it never crossed your mind before now that you might owe taxes on behalf of your household employee.”
This story has been updated to reflect McCain’s Wednesday comments that he is “leaning against” supporting Mulvaney’s nomination.