Ah, the travails of having only a two-seat majority in the Senate. Every vote matters on confirmations in that situation, even after Harry Reid blew up the filibuster and left Democrats locked out of the process. At first that circumstance appeared to threaten the confirmation of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State when John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio began expressing reservations over his friendliness toward Vladimir Putin while ExxonMobil CEO, but later the three backed down.
Now McCain is back on the warpath over Donald Trump’s pick for budget director, Mick Mulvaney, for not being sufficiently on the warpath. He tells MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he’s leaning against Mulvaney over his lack of support for continuing the war in Afghanistan, as well as being part of the ill-fated 2013 government shutdown:
SCARBOROUGH: So, Senator, a lot to get through this morning. I want to start though where you were yesterday in your hearings with the possible OMB pick. Expound a little bit on that, your frustration with the shutdown and your frustration with him being a part of it.
MCCAIN: Well, first on the shutdown, Joe, when they shut down the national parks, there’s a community around the Grand Canyon who are the concessioners and the people that work there. We had to fly food from the food banks in Phoenix up to those people because they were just left high and dry. Shutting down the government is not what the American people want us to do. So those that favored the shutdown of the government did not appreciate the impact on the lives of average Americans, whether it be the memorial down here or places around the Grand Canyon or all over America. So I just think it’s a failure on our part, all of us, when we do shut down the government as far as — go ahead.
SCAROBORUGH: I was going to ask, are you still going to support the Congressman for the position or not?
MCCAIN: I’m leaning against, because when I asked him about his vote to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan — by the way, I remind you where Osama bin Laden used to hang out — and his answer was he volunteered to tell me it was because he ran into one angry constituent who was a veteran, that that’s the reason why he voted to pull all our troops out of Afghanistan. That’s a lapse of judgment in my part — I believe. So I’m very, very worried that he will continue his efforts to slash the military, which has been cut by 21 percent in the last eight years. I don’t think any of us believe that we’re 21 percent safer.
McCain’s on more solid ground with the shutdown than on Afghanistan, although it’s unclear why either should be a deal-killer. Mulvaney’s not going to be in the loop on deciding whether and how much to fight in Afghanistan; that’s a decision between Trump, Mike Flynn, and James Mattis. Congress actually sets the budgets for military spending (and everything else), as the White House merely proposes budgets. Besides, Trump has spent the last few weeks reminding everyone that he’s going to build up the military, so the concerns over Mulvaney’s influence at OMB seem way overblown.
McCain’s right about the shutdown, but again, it seems like a moot point. The problem with the government shutdown was that it was a stupid move, tactically speaking, for two reasons. One, ObamaCare can’t get defunded through the budget process because it gets most of its revenue from taxes embedded in statutory law, which allows HHS to spend that money without Congressional appropriation, like other entitlement programs. Two, as McCain notes, it allows the White House to determine what does get spent and where on an emergency basis — and it’s in their interest to create havoc and blame it on Congress. The only reason Republicans didn’t pay a price for that tactical faceplant is because it was an off year, and because the rollout of ObamaCare turned into such a disaster that it quickly overshadowed the bad press the GOP got from the shutdown.
That was over three years ago, though, and Republicans control the whole budget process. It’s not going to come up again, and even if it does, Mulvaney won’t be in Congress to lead it if he’s at the White House — and he’d almost certainly oppose it from that position.
McCain came around on Tillerson, and these seem like less serious issues, so don’t be surprised if he falls back to a “benefit of the doubt” position again here. However, don’t expect McCain to back down an inch from his opposition to enhanced interrogation techniques, which also comes up in the conversation:
WILLIE GEIST MSNBC HOST: Senator McCain, it’s Willie Geist. Good to see you this morning. The president has issued a list of executive orders over the last few days and we’ve learned — there are several reports that today he’ll issue one to review the black site detention program, that kind of enhanced interrogation that may go on inside those places. You’re uniquely qualified of course to speak on this issue of enhanced interrogation, or torture if you call it that. Will you stand in the way of this executive order?
MCCAIN: Well, the executive order is circumscribed by the law that we passed prohibiting the use of torture. And even though the army field manual can be reviewed, it still does not allow to return to the use of torture, including waterboarding. And I am confident that that — the vote was 78-21 in the United States Senate, and it specifically prohibits it.
Now, we look at the army field manual and might make changes, but it doesn’t mean those changes can allow a return to torture. I’m happy that General Mattis has spoken out against it, as has every military — General Petraeus, you name them. Any military leader you respect have said we should not torture people, and I’m very confident that it wouldn’t stand a day in court if they tried to restore that.
Trump did talk about bringing back waterboarding on the campaign trail, but backed off after conferring with Mattis on the subject. As McCain suggests, it’s highly unlikely that Mattis or John Kelly will consent to that expansion of the field manual, and that would act to constrain the CIA to a large extent as well, given the Senate vote several years ago.