The Senate’s slow pace in confirming Cabinet nominees appears to be holding up lawmakers’ work on major fiscal legislation while they wait for President Donald Trump’s budget shop to get up and running.
The White House needs to move on budget priorities and discretionary spending levels for fiscal 2018; a wrap-up of fiscal 2017 appropriations; and supplemental funding requests to boost military spending and begin construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump’s budget chief would play a central role in each case.
But Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., the conservative congressman tapped by Trump to become director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, awaits a Senate floor vote on his nomination after it was advanced by two committees on Feb. 2. The chamber is slogging through three other confirmation votes this week; Democrats have slowed action to a crawl by insisting on using the full floor time for debate on nominees.
Keeping Mulvaney on ice has left Trump without an OMB director longer than any other president in recent decades, according to Senate records. From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, the longest it took the Senate to sign off on a first budget director was one week. The chamber confirmed Ronald Reagan’s nominee for OMB chief, David Stockman, on Jan. 27, 1981.
If Democrats continue to use up all the hours for debate under Senate rules, it’s possible Mulvaney won’t be confirmed until after the President’s Day recess. Both chambers are scheduled to leave town Friday, Feb. 17, and return on Monday, Feb. 27.
There’s no resolution in sight for Mulvaney. After confirming Betsy DeVos for Education secretary on Tuesday, Attorney General nominee Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, on Wednesday, and Georgia Rep. Tom Price for Health and Human Services secretary early Friday, the tentative lineup is:
- Hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary;
- Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Energy secretary;
- Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for Interior secretary;
- Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary of Health David Shulkin for VA secretary.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, said Mulvaney “could be” scheduled for a floor vote this week, but he said he doesn’t know if that will happen.
“There are a number of noncontroversial nominations, but as long as [the Democrats] are going to object to everything and not yield any time back, it’s going to stretch it out longer than normal,” Cornyn said.
“This is the slowest time for a new Cabinet to be up and running since George Washington,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lamented.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, told reporters that Democrats would continue to slow down floor proceedings as the Senate turns to Sessions’ nomination.
“Beyond that, no decision has been made,” Durbin said.
The absence of Trump’s budget chief is a major roadblock for Congress and the new administration. Lawmakers need to pass final fiscal 2017 funding by April 28, when the current continuing resolution (PL 114-254) expires, and the fiscal 2018 budget and appropriations process is already likely to get off to a late start, which is not necessarily unusual in the first year of a presidency.
“We really can’t do budget hearings until we have a budget,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
In 2016, House and Senate appropriators kicked off their annual series of budget hearings on Feb. 10. Neither the House nor Senate Appropriations Committee has scheduled such hearings yet this month, though the Senate panel may hold hearings on general topics.
Many Cabinet members who would typically testify before the Appropriations Committees about their budget requests are also not in place.
Mulvaney told Senate committees in written testimony that he wants to deliver a “skinny” budget — a rough outline of administration priorities for the next fiscal year — to Congress in February after he’s confirmed. But the lengthy confirmation process has put that plan in jeopardy, and now the Trump administration may skip a skinny budget altogether, say people familiar with the budget preparation process.
A full budget likely wouldn’t come until the spring, which is normal for a new administration. Trump’s team is also preparing an executive order related to the budget, people with knowledge of the process say, but it’s unclear what the order will entail.
Skipping the skinny budget could be especially problematic this year due to lack of clarity on topline spending levels for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1.
Without Trump’s budget office up and running, lawmakers are largely in the dark so far about what the administration will want to do with discretionary appropriations.
Trump has said he wants to eliminate the budget caps on military spending set in a 2011 deficit reduction law (PL 112-25). But Democrats will insist on raising the caps for domestic spending in exchange for supporting higher defense spending levels.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a top Democratic appropriator, said in January that “parity” between defense and nondefense increases — a longtime demand by Democrats in spending negotiations — remains “non-negotiable,” despite the increased leverage Republican enjoy with Trump in the White House.
He noted that 60 votes are still required in the Senate to advance most legislation on the floor. Republicans hold just 52 seats.
That means Congress and the administration may need to reach another bipartisan agreement on spending to complete fiscal 2018 appropriations later this year.
Appropriators were able to begin work on fiscal 2017 spending bills early in 2016 even without adopting a budget because they knew exactly how much money they had to work with that year. That’s because a 2015 budget law (PL 114-74) modified the discretionary spending caps for fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017.
No such deal exists for fiscal 2018 spending levels. Without congressional action, discretionary spending for the next fiscal year would be subject to the budget caps set in 2011, which many lawmakers on both sides consider too low for some agencies to function successfully.
Top appropriators and lawmakers insist that the Senate’s slow-walking of Mulvaney and other nominees hasn't halted all activity on budget and appropriations work.
“I think as a committee, we’re prepared to move,” said House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. “His appointment is not quite solid yet, but it’s not stopping us from getting our act together.”
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a senior GOP appropriator, said last week he was planning to meet soon with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, to discuss final funding for Energy-Water spending. The two longtime appropriators oversee the spending bill that funds the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers water projects.
Alexander said it’s possible the bill would be included in an omnibus package with the other unfinished spending titles, but he said that would be a better outcome than another stopgap spending bill that simply extends spending directions from the prior fiscal year.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer also played down the importance of having Mulvaney confirmed.
“There are a lot of extraordinarily talented professionals at OMB. It’s not as if the agency is not being administered,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters. “The fact that an OMB director has not been confirmed is not stopping OMB from doing its work.”
Hoyer said he expects a rocky confirmation process for Mulvaney, citing his support for a spending fight that led to a government shutdown in October 2013 and his views on the federal debt ceiling. Both topics, as well as Mulvaney’s opinions about entitlement programs, have raised hackles among Democrats.
“I think having a director of the OMB who was prepared to not only shut down the government, but perhaps put the country’s credit at risk, were not good qualifications to be director of OMB,” Hoyer said.
Other items on deck in the coming months that need input from OMB include the supplemental spending requests Trump is planning to put forth to boost current defense spending and to fund his proposed border wall .
“I think . . . they may be waiting for Mulvaney, but we’ve been hearing varying reports,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the defense supplemental funding request.
Trump is also likely to weigh in on whatever spending package lawmakers use to fund agencies for the remainder of fiscal 2017. Most of the government is now operating under the CR that expires April 28.
In December, Trump’s transition team specifically requested that Congress pass the CR so his administration could have input into final fiscal 2017 spending in the spring.
At OMB, Mulvaney would also have his hands on major health care and tax changes that Republicans plan to push through the budget reconciliation process.
Jennifer Shutt, Kellie Mejdrich, Paul M. Krawzak and Bridget Bowman contributed to this story.