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OMB nominee gets earful from Democratic senators

Vought faulted for Ukraine aid hold, lack of involvement in coronavirus relief talks

Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives to testify during a House Budget Committee hearing on Feb. 12, 2020.
Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives to testify during a House Budget Committee hearing on Feb. 12, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Budget Committee Democrats denounced the nomination of Russell Vought to be director of the Office of Management and Budget at a hearing Wednesday, with their primary focus on what they say was an illegal withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Republicans on the narrowly divided committee appeared supportive of Vought during his confirmation hearing, suggesting there will be the votes to report the nomination to the full Senate.

Patty Murray, D-Wash., called Vought “unfit and unqualified” to lead OMB, adding that she was “stunned” that the committee was even holding the hearing. Murray charged that OMB violated federal law while Vought served as acting director last year by temporarily withholding military aid to Ukraine. The Government Accountability Office said OMB violated the law, but OMB has maintained the hold was legal.

Murray also accused Vought of not being involved in the negotiations between the White House and Congress over pandemic aid legislation. She said Vought “is nowhere to be found. How can that be?”

Vought told Murray he has a “great relationship” with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the White House point man in the talks, and that they “talk multiple times a day and he and I are constantly working together on these issues.” Vought said his door is always open “to build a closer relationship with you and other members of this committee.”

Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Vought what he would do if President Donald Trump ordered him to cut off federal aid to states for sending out absentee ballot applications.

Vought said his approach to the job “has been and will be to accomplish the president’s objectives consistent with the law, and so I would take a review of programs and what discretionary authority that we had, but I would do it within the bounds of the law.” He said Trump has not “made any kind of decision on that front.”

Pressed for further explanation, Vought said he would have to review enacted appropriations laws to see what authority the president had. Wyden replied that “what you’re talking about, Mr. Vought, basically tramples all over Article I of the Constitution, which gives the power of the purse to Congress.”

The confirmation hearing Wednesday was Vought’s second in two days. On Tuesday he testified virtually before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, which shares jurisdiction with Budget.

Vought received a warm response from Republicans on that panel as well, including Mitt Romney of Utah. Romney was the sole GOP senator to vote to convict Trump on one of the articles of impeachment adopted by the House in response to the president’s hold on Ukraine aid, which was executed under Vought’s leadership at OMB.

[Budget nominee looks set to clear at least one Senate hurdle]

Several Republicans on the Budget panel praised Vought, including Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who said Vought has always been a “constructive, transparent, accessible person.” Toomey gave Vought some of the credit for what he called the “best economy of my lifetime” before the pandemic hit. Toomey credited the strong economic growth in part to “rolling back excessive and unnecessary regulation, and that’s something that you played a major role in.”

Several Democrats on the panel urged the administration to support additional pandemic aid to states and local governments and let states use the aid to replace lost revenue. But Rick Scott, R-Fla., argued for a different approach, saying he was “concerned about Florida taxpayers paying for the budgets of other states.”

Scott said when he was governor of Florida, the state paid down its debt. Meanwhile, he said, New York under Gov. Andrew Cuomo has increased its debt.

“I hope the administration will make sure we continue to watch how this money is spent and we don’t go bail out bad management or pension plans from states that don’t want to live within their means,” Scott said.

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