Mulvaney vows to give Trump straight talk on entitlements

Mulvaney vows to give Trump straight talk on entitlements
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s pick for budget chief on Tuesday said he would “tell the truth” and not back away from vows to reform Social Security and Medicare spending.

Making changes to the two programs is politically dicey, and Trump repeatedly said he would leave them alone during his presidential campaign.

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But Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) gave no signs of shedding his reputation as a fiscal hawk during separate confirmation hearings with two Senate panels Tuesday.

“The only thing I know to do is tell the president the truth,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney called for “fundamental changes” to pay down the nearly $20 trillion national debt and promised he’d lay out for Trump the potential fiscal impact of failing to reform entitlement programs.

One of the co-founders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Mulvaney acknowledged that his views on changing Medicare and Social Security differ from Trump’s.

Mulvaney said that he had “no reason” to think Trump had changed his mind but suggested that he might seek to do so.

“I have to imagine that the president knew what he was getting when he asked me to fill this role,” he said. “I’d like to think it’s why he hired me.” 

Democrats were eager to point out what they said is an inescapable gap between Trump and his nominee for the Office of Management and Budget, and some of the most memorable moments of Mulvaney’s time with the Budget Committee came during questions from Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (I-Vt.).

“We have a president who ran on a set of principles that he would not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and yet he is nominating someone whose views are very, very different,” Sanders noted.

Mulvaney reiterated his support for raising the retirement age for Social Security to 70 and for means testing under Medicare.

But he pledged to defend the president’s position even when he disagreed with Trump and promised not to cut entitlement benefits of existing recipients.

Mulvaney’s testimony came the same day the Congressional Budget Office projected that federal deficits will increase in 2019, largely because of spending on Medicare, Social Security and federal interest payments on the national debt.

Like most of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Mulvaney is expected to win confirmation in the Senate.

If he runs into a problem, however, it could come from his past criticism of defense spending.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) used Mulvaney’s second hearing of the day with the Homeland Security panel to rip his previous votes against increasing military funding and in favor of pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Europe.

Mulvaney said those votes were intended to boost transparency about government spending and promised to support Trump’s pledge to expand the military.

He cited a tearful conversation with a constituent whose son was serving in Afghanistan as the reason he voted for an immediate troop withdrawal, saying, “I was doing the best I could to represent the people of South Carolina.”

But McCain called Mulvaney an “impediment” to supporting U.S. forces and accused him of “pitting the debt against the military” through his career.

Other GOP defense hawks appear likely to support Mulvaney. Two of them, Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (S.C.) and Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (Ark.), introduced their House colleague at the hearings, signaling their support.

Mulvaney appeared to cruise through what many thought could be a significant controversy: the revelation that he had failed to pay more than $15,000 in taxes for a nanny from 2000 to 2004.

Democrats have been quick to note that similar issues sank nominees under President Obama, but Mulvaney was barely pressed on the matter Tuesday.

His explanation was that he simply did not take into consideration that the woman he had hired to help his wife raise triplets would be viewed as a household employee, thus carrying tax implications. He added that he paid the woman $400 a week for working about 40 hours, for three or four years, but considered her a babysitter, not a nanny.

“It’s easy to say in hindsight that I was wrong. I clearly admit that,” he said.

He said that when he realized he had made a mistake following his nomination, he contacted the Trump team and his accountant and paid back taxes.

Though some Democrats expressed concern about the tax issue, liberal lawmakers did not focus the bulk of their attention on it.

In fact, in both hearings it was the GOP committee chairmen who asked Mulvaney to explain.

Democrats pressed Mulvaney on whether he’d support raising the debt ceiling, something the Trump administration will need to grapple with in the coming months.

As a House member, Mulvaney resisted efforts to lift the debt ceiling without massive spending cuts.

He also pushed alternatives to raising the borrowing cap such as prioritizing certain government payments over others.

Mulvaney did not step back from those positions on Tuesday.

“I will counsel the president as to the ramifications of raising the debt ceiling or not raising the debt ceiling,” he said simply in response to a question from Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Trump pushing Maine gov to run for Senate: report Schumer: Franken should resign MORE (I-Maine).

— Peter Schroeder contributed.