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Budget nominee looks set to clear at least one Senate hurdle

Romney has kind words for Russell Vought, despite role in impeachment battle

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives for the Senate Republicans' lunch in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Mitt Romney signaled on Tuesday he intends to support Russell Vought for director of the Office of Management and Budget, removing one question mark surrounding Vought’s path to confirmation.

In a cordial exchange during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Romney, R-Utah, told Vought he appreciated “your service already and your willingness to take this further,” referring to Vought’s job as acting OMB director since the start of 2019.

The Homeland Security panel shares jurisdiction with the Budget Committee over the nomination. The Budget Committee has scheduled its confirmation hearing for Wednesday afternoon.

[Trump’s budget chief pick prepares to run confirmation gantlet]

Romney had been a potential wild card on Vought’s nomination because he was the only Republican senator to vote to convict President Donald Trump on one article of impeachment earlier this year.

The House impeachment charges grew from accusations that the president withheld foreign aid to Ukraine in return for a political favor. OMB was instrumental in temporarily withholding aid to Ukraine while Vought served as acting director.

Given the 8-6 ratio of Republicans to Democrats on the panel, if Romney were to vote against the nomination and all Democrats on the panel also voted ‘no,’ there would be a tie and Vought’s nomination would not be reported to the full Senate.

Romney did offer some advice, in the form of a question about whether OMB could work more closely with Congress in trying to accomplish some of Trump’s goals. He cited the way Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brokered deals with Democrats and Republicans alike over pandemic-related legislation.

“I wonder whether it’s not possible for OMB and the administration to play a much more active role in the process … so that we end up with some of the reforms that the administration is looking for,” Romney said.

Earlier in the exchange, Vought said the White House has tried to make its views on legislation known to Congress earlier in the process by sending letters to the Appropriations Committees and other panels “so that there’s a more robust view about what we actually find problematic and what we don’t.”

Romney urged Vought to include measures to address the growing debt in any possible future pandemic aid bill. Romney said he had spoken with a former Treasury secretary he did not name, who told him that world markets “will understand borrowing during the COVID crisis but they don’t understand an extra trillion dollars a year in excessive borrowing during good times,” a reference to the projected $1 trillion deficits before the pandemic hit.

Republicans and Democrats on the committee pressed Vought to provide more information about how the trillions of dollars of aid provided by pandemic legislation is being spent.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said his staff has estimated that of about $2.9 trillion in pandemic aid passed by Congress, about $1.12 trillion of it has been spent so far.

“We’re really going to need a very detailed accounting of where the money’s spent,” and “to the extent that money hasn’t gone out, what’s the roadblock,” Johnson said.

Vought said getting that information to the committee is a priority, and that OMB is crunching numbers from May and will provide information to Congress after that is done. Vought said the $1.12 trillion cited by Johnson is similar to what OMB believes has been legally obligated as of the end of May.

Picking up from concerns raised when Vought went before the committee for his confirmation as deputy director of OMB in 2017, the panel’s ranking member, Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked Vought for a commitment to “fully and promptly” respond to all oversight requests from the committee, including from Democrats.

Three years ago, Democrats took issue with an administration legal opinion that they said allowed the White House to only respond to oversight requests from the GOP committee chairman.

“Yes, we’re going to continue to work with the committee, all of the committee members, to make sure we can be as responsive as we possibly can,” Vought said.

Vought added that OMB would be responsive to requests from the Government Accountability Office. And he said he would look into what Peters said was a refusal by the Small Business Administration to cooperate with a GAO review of the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, established by the $2 trillion March aid package to keep workers on firms’ payrolls during the pandemic.

Peters asked Vought if the White House has agreed to waive a requirement that states put up matching funds for aid provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the pandemic, as Democrats have requested.

Vought said no, but that the request is still under consideration.

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