Senate GOP hopes Trump's OMB pick influences him on entitlements

Story highlights

  • Mick Mulvaney is a fiscal hawk
  • Trump had pledged to preserve Social Security on the trail

Washington (CNN)In a role reversal on Tuesday, Senate Democrats were imploring one of President Donald Trump's nominees to uphold a campaign promise he made -- while Republicans sought assurances the nominee would try to change Trump's mind.

South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney faced the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday morning in the first of two hearings he'll have for his confirmation as director of the Office of Management and Budget. In the afternoon, he faced the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
As Democrats on the Budget committee repeatedly questioned Mulvaney about whether he would live up to Trump's campaign promise to not touch Social Security or Medicare, Republicans on the committee pressed Mulvaney to tell Trump that wouldn't be possible.
"Mr. Trump did say some things during the campaign that I wish he had not said," Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker said. "They're totally unrealistic, make no sense whatsoever, and I just wonder if you, is your sense that when you talk with him about the five levers, when you talk with him about the fact that it's impossible for us to balance the budget ... without dealing with these other programs, do you think he understands that?"
Corker was referring to the need to reform entitlement programs, which Mulvaney described as doable through five different pressure points, including retirement age and means testing.
Mulvaney assured the committee from his opening statements through questioning that he sees his role as telling the President the truth.
"I haven't been quiet and shy since I've been here," Mulvaney told Corker. "I have to imagine that the President knew what he was getting when he asked me to fill this role."
The sentiment from Republicans contrasted with that of their Democratic colleagues on the panel.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the committee's top Democrat, opened the hearing by saying Trump had committed to not touching Social Security and Medicare -- which Mulvaney has repeatedly talked about reforming.
"Over and over again, in fact the cornerstone, one of the cornerstones of his campaign was that he was not going to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," Sanders said. "He wasn't ambiguous about this ... he said this over and over and over again, and I suspect that many millions of senior citizens in this country, millions of working class people who do not want to see Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid cut, voted for him for that reason."
Mulvaney didn't back off his views that the entitlement programs need revamping to survive -- and didn't back away from some of his past statements on the matter.
Michigan Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow raised past comments Mulvaney made that Social Security is akin to a Ponzi scheme.
"What I described it as is a plan that takes money from people now in order to give money to people now," Mulvaney said. "I wouldn't read too much into the description of it as a Ponzi scheme."
Under a rapid-fire series of questions from Republican and fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham, Mulvaney pledged to tell Trump that he will need to reconsider his campaign promise about not touching Social Security or Medicare.
"Will you tell him that the promise you made about Social Security and Medicare ... will lead to their demise?" Graham asked.
"Yes," said Mulvaney, who, in his opening statements, pointed out that his mother-in-law relied on Social Security and Medicare.
With prompts from his fellow Republicans, Mulvaney painted a picture to the panel about the need for reform for Social Security and Medicare to keep them solvent.
He brushed aside questions from Sanders, Stabenow and Sheldon Whitehouse about lifting the caps on contributions from income, saying there are other "levers" to pull.
Mulvaney said it would be his job to present the options to Trump.
" 'Mr. President, if you'd like to fix Social Security, here are your levers. Where would you like to focus?' " Mulvaney said he'd tell Trump.
Upon similar questioning from the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel in the afternoon, Mulvaney said his past legislative positions weren't necessarily going to dictate his actions as OMB director.
"In each of these examples what you've done is correctly point out a position I took as a representative of the 5th District of South Carolina," he told Sen. Claire McCaskill, who interjected asking if that meant he would get more liberal in the Cabinet.
"My role is getting ready to change," Mulvaney said, saying his job will be to present options to Trump. "I'd like to think the President has invited me to his Cabinet to bring those perspectives to the table"

Tense questions from McCain

Mulvaney faced one Republican detractor in the form of Arizona Sen. John McCain in the afternoon session.
The former prisoner of war and defense hawk went after Mulvaney with a series of questions about Mulvaney's voting record to reduce defense budgets and withdraw troops from overseas -- including all troops from Afghanistan.
Many votes, Mulvaney said he did not recall.
"I would remember if I voted to cut our defenses the way that you did, Congressman. Maybe you don't take it with the seriousness it deserves," McCain fired at Mulvaney.
He also asked Mulvaney: "What were you thinking, honestly, when you voted for an immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan?"
Mulvaney began to tell the story of how a group of Vietnam vets came into his office and one man was crying about troops overseas. McCain cut him off.
"So the answer to that is withdraw all troops from Afghanistan? Congressman that is crazy!" McCain said.
Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the Senate, meaning most if not all of Trump's nominees are likely to be confirmed, even without McCain's vote. But if McCain's sentiment caused more than two Republicans to oppose Mulvaney, Republicans would need Democratic help to confirm him.

Taxes barely come up

One of the biggest Democratic talking points against Mulvaney going into the hearing amounted to little more than a footnote in the hearings.
In a questionnaire given to the Budget committee, Mulvaney admitted that he had failed to pay more than $15,000 in taxes on a household employee, a sitter for his newborn triplets.
The only Democratic senator in either hearing to question Mulvaney at length about the issue was Michigan Sen. Gary Peters.
Peters asked if Mulvaney was running a business at the time -- which he said he was, transitioning from running a law firm to a real estate company. Peters got affirmation that he had full-time employees at that firm.
"What I'm failing to see here is what's the difference between the nanny who clearly was working full time and the employees that worked at the law firm or all these other firms?" Peters said. "Is the value of the work different?"
Mulvaney repeated that he made a mistake, saying it was easy to see "in hindsight."
Earlier, Sanders did raise Mulvaney's tax issues in his opening statements -- noting that Mulvaney himself has taken a hard line on taxes in the past, as reported by CNN. "Mr. Chairman, this is a serious issue," Sanders said, noting that in the past similar issues have caused nominees to withdraw.
Mulvaney did not address the issue head on in his opening statement, but did so in response to a question from Budget Chairman Mike Enzi.
"In 2000, we had triplets. When they came home, we hired someone to help my wife take care of the children. In our mind, she was a babysitter," Mulvaney said, noting that she did not live in the house, did not clean and did not cook. "I did not consider her a household employee ... and didn't think about it again until two days after the President nominated me for this position."
Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said she had "serious concerns" about the issue.