As lawmakers negotiate the fiscal 2020 funding bills, one official is notably missing from the talks: acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
The former House member has flown under the radar during the recent spending talks, a shift from the budget and debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year where he emerged as a gadfly for lawmakers.
Two congressional sources, as well as key lawmakers, say they’ve had little to no contact with Mulvaney as part of the fiscal 2020 talks.
“I have not. The answer is no,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), when asked if he had talked to the acting chief of staff.
Shelby met recently with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to discuss how to fund the government.
A senior Democratic aide said Shelby “suggested” Mnuchin be included, adding “we believe it is his view that the Treasury secretary is the only administration official with any credibility with Democrats.”
“Very limited contact with OMB [Office of Management and Budget] staff,” the aide added when asked about broader contact with Mulvaney as part of the fiscal 2020 funding process.
Shelby countered that he had only suggested that House Democrats get in a room to negotiate with the administration, not specifically Mnuchin. But the senator added that he viewed the Treasury secretary as a “pretty enlightened and involved negotiator.”
The meeting with Mnuchin and Pelosi came days after Shelby attended a separate meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and White House director of legislative affairs Eric Ueland, who is routinely spotted around the Capitol, including at a recent Senate GOP caucus lunch.
Congress has until Dec. 20 to reach an agreement on the 12 fiscal 2020 government funding bills. In a breakthrough Shelby and Lowey reached a deal on the top-line numbers, known as 302(b)s, for each of the bills, but significant hurdles including President Trump’s border wall loom as they try to write the actual funding legislation.
Mulvaney’s absence is a change from past spending showdowns when he was a high-profile participant in talks. This time, with lawmakers and the White House again racing to find a deal, the chief of staff has found himself largely bypassed.
Mulvaney was dispatched to the Capitol along with Vice President Pence and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner during the early days of the 35-day partial government shutdown early this year. He, Mnuchin and OMB Director Russ Vought also frequently attended meetings earlier this year on the debt ceiling and a two-year deal on the budget caps.
But Mulvaney, a former member of the House Freedom Caucus known for taking hard-line spending positions, clashed with lawmakers. He also pushed for a one-year budget deal as part of the talks earlier this year. Trump and House Democrats eventually agreed to a two-year deal.
Spokespeople for the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment about Mulvaney’s role in internal discussions on funding the government or his contacts with lawmakers.
The latest spending talks also come at a difficult time for Mulvaney and the White House. The administration is waging a weeks-long battle over the House impeachment inquiry, which is investigating if Trump tied Ukraine aid to the country opening up an investigation into former Vice President Biden or his son Hunter Biden. Mulvaney has been a key player in the impeachment hearings, with his name brought up by multiple witnesses as being in the loop on events at the center of the probe.
And Mulvaney’s tenure grew tenuous in October when he acknowledged during a rare press briefing that the White House held up military aid to Ukraine in part to exert pressure for an investigation into the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee server. He ultimately walked back the remark after it dealt a blow to Trump’s defense that there was “no quid pro quo” in his dealings with Ukraine.
The episode was seen as damaging to Mulvaney, with a report in The Washington Post earlier this month claiming that aides had counseled Trump not to fire his chief of staff.
But a source close to the White House said Mulvaney is likely to be very involved in government funding within the White House, as well as in regular communications with officials like Ueland who are in contact with Capitol Hill about fiscal 2020 spending bills.
“They know where the president is on the wall, so no matter who’s in the room for the White House that’s the issue,” said a second source close to the White House.
Lawmakers, however, have been frank about signaling that they don’t view Mulvaney as involved on the funding talks with Capitol Hill.
Asked about talks with Mulvaney, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, shot back: “Who?”
“Are you talking about the — isn’t that the guy who never voted for an appropriations bill in his life? He may have had a role, I’m not aware of any Republican or Democrat that’s aware of it,” Leahy added.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also characterized Mulvaney as being “sidelined” during the current round of funding talks.
“In my opinion, McConnell was waiting on an ‘OK’ from the White House to proceed. Mulvaney did not want to proceed. The fact that he’s sidelined now, perhaps will give us some room for progress,” Hoyer told MSNBC during a recent interview.
Instead, Mnuchin is viewed by Capitol Hill as a trusted voice within the administration in funding fights — a role that grew out of the budget talks where leadership, as well as top appropriators, quickly signaled they preferred dealing with him compared to Mulvaney or Vought.
“When there’s been meetings, if he’s been there, all the questions, the back and forth, has been directed by both Republicans and Democrats to Secretary Mnuchin,” Leahy added.
Shelby characterized Mnuchin as being the “du jour and de facto” spokesman for his meetings with the administration on government funding.
“We seem to be making progress at times or have when Mnuchin is involved. But if Mulvaney is involved and we make progress, so be it,” Shelby said.
Shelby noted whether Mulvaney gets involved in the negotiations is up to Trump. Pressed if he thought Mulvaney should, given the dynamic in the budget negotiations, he demurred, adding: “I’ll let y’all write about it.”
Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed.