WASHINGTON — The Senate narrowly confirmed President Donald Trump's pick for budget director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, bucking hawkish lawmakers who protested over his past support of defense cuts.
The Senate voted 51-49 to confirm Mulvaney, R-S.C., as head of the Office of Management and Budget — with Sen. John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, the lone Republican voting against. McCain, who has been feuding with Trump for months, said Mulvaney's fiscal conservativism is at odds with Trump's plans to rebuild the military.
Advocates of limited government credit Mulvaney as the taxpayer's advocate, leading Republicans and working with Democrats to cut federal spending, rein in the debt, and champion transparency for federal spending.
But McCain, who supported all of Trump's other nominees, opposed Mulvaney largely over Mulvaney's 2011 vote to pull all troops from Afghanistan, a measure to cut $3.5 billion from a defense bill and his support, with conservative Republicans, for a government shutdown as a tactic in spending fights.
"My decision to oppose this nomination is not about one person," McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday in a floor speech. "It is not about one Cabinet position. This is not personal. This is not political. This is about principle. This is about my conviction as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that providing for the common defense is our highest constitutional duty, and that rebuilding our military must be the No. 1 priority of the Congress and the White House.
"I will vote to oppose Congressman Mulvaney's nomination because it would be irresponsible to place the future of the defense budget in the hands of a person with such a record and judgment on national security."
McCain has proposed a $640 billion base for the 2018 defense budget, which House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, backs as well.
"But this is the beginning, not the end, of the fight to rebuild the military," McCain said Wednesday.
Trump last month ordered the Pentagon and the OMB to develop — within 90 days — an emergency budget amendment to boost military spending this year, and for Mattis to update and revise existing budget plans for fiscal 2018. Mattis, in a memo afterward, said he plans to send a supplemental request to OMB by March 1.
But how the administration will manage a defense increase is unclear, though analysts expect the increase to come in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is exempt from budget caps. It's the sort of move Mulvaney has opposed before, and it would invite Democrats to insist increased defense spending be matched on the domestic side of the budget, as they have in recent budget deals.
To reach a budget deal, Trump would likely have to reach across the aisle to Democrats to get the 60 votes in the Senate — and at the same time keep fiscally conservative lawmakers happy, too.
Democrats signaled they plan to stick to the parity position. Several Senate Democrats — in a series of floor speeches Wednesday — complained that Mulvaney supports lifting statutory budget caps for defense only, and not the domestic side of the budget.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., lamented Mulvaney has made no allowance for domestic-side national security agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Nor does he recognize parity as a pragmatic means to a bipartisan budget deal.
"Mr. Mulvaney has thus far failed to grasp that there is simply no way to secure support for sequestration relief without addressing both defense and non-defense sides of the ledger," Reed said.
"Moreover, he has not recognized that it is repugnant to many here to suggest that one side of the budget can be cannibalized to fund the other side. The best way to fund sequester relief is through the combination of additional revenue and revenue cuts. It's worked before and we should look to that solution again."
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, an Armed Services Committee member, made a pro-defense argument, questioning the wisdom of Mulvaney's past support of defense cuts in light of more recent Russian aggression toward Ukraine and North Korea's recent missile test.
"Congressman Mulvaney has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to face domestic and global realities, and for this senator, that raises serious concerns as to whether he can be trusted to responsibly oversee our nation's budget process," Nelson said. "And for these reasons and others, I will be voting 'no' on Congressman Mulvaney's nomination."