Conservatives watching if Mick Mulvaney will be their champion as budget director

The Post & Courier by Emma Dumain

WASHINGTON — Thursday was bittersweet for many of the most outspoken conservatives in Congress.

With Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s confirmation to lead the White House's Office of Management and Budget, they lost a comrade-in-arms in the fight to rein in government spending on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, they gained perhaps their most important ally to protect their interests inside President Donald Trump’s administration.

“The appointment of Mick Mulvaney sends a strong message that the Trump administration is serious about tackling our national debt,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, where Mulvaney was a founding member.

“We can think of no one better suited for this critically important role,” Meadows added. 

Mulvaney was confirmed by the Senate on a 51-49 vote Thursday, with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain siding with the opposition Democrats.   

Ultimately, time will tell to what extent Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican first elected to Congress in 2010, can steer federal agencies toward greater fiscal discipline — the sort that even some members of his own party view as draconian.

For instance, Trump promised during the campaign to bolster military operations and champion major infrastructure legislation. Both priorities come with hefty price tags, the sort Mulvaney, as a lawmaker, would have dismissed out of hand.

During his confirmation hearings, however, Mulvaney said repeatedly he was prepared to carry out the president’s agenda, not necessarily his own. That assurance did seem to calm those Republican senators who might ordinarily be put off by Mulvaney’s outlier status.

In 2013, Mulvaney supported shutting down the government for two weeks in a stalemate with Democrats over funding the Affordable Care Act. As a member of the Freedom Caucus, he has regularly helped thwart the leadership’s legislative priorities. In 2015, he played a part in the ousting of then-House Speaker John Boehner.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a defense hawk, said he wasn’t worried about Mulvaney’s record opposing spending increases for military operations.

“(Mulvaney) understands the top priority of the federal government is to defend our nation,” Graham said Thursday.

McCain, who is Graham’s close friend and congressional hawk ally, was not convinced. He was the only Republican to join with every Democrat in opposing Mulvaney’s nomination.

"Congressman Mulvaney's beliefs, as revealed by his poor record on defense spending, are fundamentally at odds with President Trump’s commitment to rebuild our military," McCain said on the Senate floor.

To McCain’s point, Republicans who know Mulvaney best say they are confident he won’t cave to pressure from the Trump administration to go along just to get along.

"I believe Mick Mulvaney was brought in to provide a different perspective, and based on my conversations with Mick, he thinks that the White House will welcome that different perspective," U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a friend of Mulvaney’s, told reporters during panel discussion this week of House conservatives.

The first test will come in the weeks ahead as Mulvaney oversees completion of the fiscal 2018 federal budget, which in a president’s first year in office is typically more of a bare-bones blueprint.

Republicans will also be watching to see how Mulvaney handles entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, all of which he has targeted in the past for cuts but that Trump has promised to leave intact.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan praised Mulvaney— his fellow South Carolina Republican, Freedom Caucus member and close friend — for his “encyclopedic” budget knowledge and “unquestionable” work ethic.

The day before, however, he didn’t have an answer for how Mulvaney will navigate the political challenges of the position when it comes to entitlement programs.

“I’m curious to see how (he) approaches this from OMB,” Duncan said during the same lunch as Amash. “He’s very like-minded with us here.”

A special election will be held to fill Mulvaney's 5th Congressional District seat that stretches from Sumter to Spartanburg. Several candidates have already announced bids.