Sen. John McCain has never cared for those upstart whippersnapper House Republicans who arrived in the 2010 “Tea Party Wave,” what with their general disrespect for congressional elders, occasional unwillingness to support maximum military spending, and that loud rock and roll music they play all night.
Now is his moment for revenge. Those members now have six years under their belts, enough experience to qualify for Cabinet positions in the new Republican administration. That means they have to go through the Senate and, depending on the committee, allow John McCain to unload six years of gripes during their confirmation hearings. And—along with Sen. Marco Rubio’s examination of Rex Tillerson in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—McCain’s treatment of Office of Management and Budget director nominee Rep. Mick Mulvaney on Tuesday afternoon was the nastiest I’ve seen a Senate Republican get with a Trump appointee.
Most of it concerned defense spending. One of the intra-Republican battles playing out over the past several years on Capitol Hill has been between military hawks, like McCain or Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Tea Party deficit hawks in the House, like, say, Rep. Mick Mulvaney. The military hawks are willing to relax the across-the-board “sequester” budget cuts if it allows them to increase the Pentagon budget; Tea Party, small government types largely see the indiscriminate shredding of the sequester as an achievement.
McCain asked Mulvaney several times to explain his votes to cut defense budgets. What he homed in on, though, were votes Mulvaney had made to withdraw U.S. troops, either from European bases or—in the case of a 2011 vote—from the war in Afghanistan.
“Mr. Mulvaney,” McCain said in his first question, “in 2011, did you vote for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?
“Um, you and I talked about that—”
“Please, I have a short period of time, it’s a pretty simple question,” McCain said, cutting him off. He repeated the question.
“I believe that I did, yes,” Mulvaney relented.
McCain also asked Mulvaney if he offered an amendment in 2013 to cut military spending by $3.5 billion.
“That, I don’t remember,” Mulvaney said. This was an egregious case of a witness misremembering. Here’s an article about getting that amendment passed posted on Mulvaney’s official website, in which he touts his achievement.
“Boy, I tell ya, I would remember if I voted to cut our defenses the way you did, congressman,” McCain said. “Maybe you don’t take it with the seriousness it deserves. … I’m interested in what our military needs and whether they’re receiving it. It’s clear from your record that you’ve been an impediment to that for years.”
“What’s the highest priority,” McCain continued shortly thereafter, “reducing the debt or rebuilding the military?”
“The No. 1 priority of the United States government is to defend the nation,” Mulvaney said.
“It’s nice to hear you believe they are important,” McCain responded, “because you’ve spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against the military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important.”
McCain also brought up Mulvaney’s previous “support for government shut downs.” What McCain really didn’t like was Mulvaney’s use of the term “temporary lapse in appropriations” to describe the 2013 shutdown.
“Since it’s obvious that you and your friends supported the shutdown—in fact I remember it vividly, a ‘temporary lapse in appropriations’—I’d like you to go to Arizona and tell the folks up around the Grand Canyon, when we shut down the Grand Canyon and we had to fly food up to them,” McCain said. “I remember it very well, and I think it’s a shameful chapter, and I think it is a reason why the people have such a low opinion of us and the work we do when we have ‘temporary lapses in appropriations,’ as you describe them.”
When McCain pressed him again about why he voted for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Mulvaney asked to share a story. (Before I recount that story: The correct answer is because the vote was in 2011, when it became politically advantageous for certain Republicans to oppose funding for what had become Obama’s war.) Mulvaney described a “giant mountain of a man” who came to Mulvaney’s office and cried about how his son had been deployed five times to Afghanistan. “It is killing my family,” Mulvaney recalled the man saying.
McCain didn’t buy the sob story. “Beacause one person came up to you and was subject to the sacrifices that the men and women make? And you voted to withdraw all the troops from Afghanistan? Do you know where 9/11 came from?”
The exchange will set off another round of media frenzy about whether McCain, and perhaps a couple other of his hawk friends, will vote to tank a nomination, just as it did when Rubio went after Rex Tillerson. McCain, Graham, and Rubio have all said they’ll support Rex Tillerson. We look forward to reading McCain’s statement of support for Mick Mulvaney in a few days’ time.