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Budget Director Nominee Splits With Trump On Entitlement Reform


President Trump's nominee to head the White House budget office says Social Security and Medicare will have to change if they're going to be preserved for future retirees. That is not what Trump promised during the campaign. He said repeatedly he wants to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. Well, the gap between the president and his would-be budget director was on full display during the Senate confirmation hearing today. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney says if he's confirmed as White House budget director, his job will be to help navigate difficult decisions now to avoid nearly impossible choices later.


MICK MULVANEY: It's the OMB director's responsibility to tell you and the president the truth, even, from time to time, when that might be hard to hear.

HORSLEY: In Congress, Mulvaney's established a reputation as a deficit hawk who's called for significant changes to Social Security and Medicare. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders asked how Mulvaney would square that working for a president who promised not to touch those retirement programs.


BERNIE SANDERS: Will you tell the president of the United States, Mr. President, keep your word, be honest with the American people, do not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?

MULVANEY: The only thing I know to do is to tell the president the truth.

HORSLEY: Mulvaney says without reforms, Medicare and Social Security will both run short of funds in the coming decades. Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee like Debbie Stabenow of Michigan seized on Mulvaney's comments to suggest the new Trump administration is planning a bait-and-switch.


DEBBIE STABENOW: I think folks on Social Security and Medicare ought to be really worried. And that just demonstrated the difference between what President Trump has indicated he would do and what, in fact, you will be advising him.

HORSLEY: But if Democrats on the committee were alarmed by Mulvaney's answers, Republicans like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were heartened. Graham hopes Mulvaney can talk the new president into considering changes to the retirement programs.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Isn't it true that if we do nothing we're going to have to either dramatically increase taxes or cut benefits in the next decade to 15 years?

MULVANEY: If we do nothing, then by the time I retire there will be an across-the-board 22 percent cut to Social Security benefits.

HORSLEY: Mulvaney insists he does not advocate any changes for today's seniors, but he supports raising the retirement age or means-testing Medicare benefits for future retirees. Trump has argued that faster economic growth will fix the problem, but Mulvaney told Graham even if the economy grew twice as fast as Trump is aiming for it wouldn't be enough.


GRAHAM: Could you grow the economy at 8 percent and close the gap?

MULVANEY: No, sir.

HORSLEY: Mulvaney was also asked about his failure to pay taxes for a babysitter he and his wife hired help when their triplets were born. He says he discovered the error only after his nomination and has since paid about $15,000 in back taxes.


MULVANEY: We made a mistake in my family. And as soon as it was brought to my attention I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to take every step to fix it. I will pay any penalties, any interest, any late fees and abide by the law to the best of my ability.

HORSLEY: Senators seemed less concerned with Mulvaney's tax bill than his willingness to confront the new president with unpleasant information. To test that, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley held up two poster-sized photographs, one showing the crowd at Trump's inauguration last Friday, the other the crowd at Barack Obama's swearing in eight years earlier. He asked Mulvaney which crowd looked bigger.


MULVANEY: From that picture, it does appear that the crowd on the left-hand side is bigger than the crowd on the right-hand side.

JEFF MERKLEY: Thank you.

HORSLEY: The crowd on the left is Obama's. Mulvaney says he'll be equally blunt in giving the president hard numbers on the federal budget. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.