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White House Budget Director Mulvaney: I’m getting president to ‘look at’ entitlement reform

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mick Mulvaney, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget, told a conservative radio host today that he is looking for ways to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, working around President Trump’s campaign trail promise to leave the programs untouched.

“I’ve already started to socialize the discussion around here in the West Wing about how important the mandatory spending is to the drivers of our debt,” Mulvaney told Hugh Hewitt on Monday morning. “I think people are starting to grab it. There are ways that we can not only allow the president to keep his promise, but to help him keep his promise by fixing some of these mandatory programs.”

Mulvaney, a budget hawk elected to Congress in the 2010 tea party wave, came to OMB with ideas about entitlement spending that diverged widely from Trump’s. At his January hearing, he told senators that he still favored raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, and supported means-testing to reduce Medicare spending. As a congressman, he was the main supporter of the unsuccessful Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which would have raised the debt limit only if it came with the passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

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At the hearing, Mulvaney acknowledged that he disagreed with Trump on entitlement reform. “I have no reason to believe the president has changed his mind,” he said. “My job is to be completely and brutally honest with him.”

In the interview with Hewitt, who is also a Washington Post op-ed contributor, Mulvaney suggested that his education campaign was well underway. “As soon as the 2018 spending budget is done at the end of next week, I’m hoping to put together something for the president to look at on the other pieces of entitlement spending, or mandatory spending,” he said. “Some people don’t like the word ‘entitlement.’ I use that simply because we are entitled to that under law. It doesn’t mean it’s, some people misinterpret what that means, but try and lay out for the president what’s driving the deficit, and what we can do while still keeping his promise.”

During the campaign, as he made significant breakthroughs with working-class white voters who had voted for Barack Obama for president, Trump repeatedly bucked the conservative consensus on entitlement reform. “It is my intention to leave Social Security as it is,” Trump said at a March 2016 Republican debate. In the past two months, members of the Democratic caucus, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have thrown Trump’s quotes back at Republicans, arguing that any reforms that reduce payouts will break the president’s promise.

“Trump said, ‘I will save Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, without cuts. We have to do it,’ ” Sanders said last month at an event commemorating Social Security’s anniversary. “I think Trump was as clear as he can be, and if he goes back on that, he was lying to the American people.”

But Republicans, who generally favor deep cuts to entitlements, have increasingly argued that Trump could make good on his promises by signing on to reform.

“He did talk about saving Medicare and Social Security, and as someone who was on the campaign trail with him in November, it was really about making sure that people who were getting benefits, or about to get benefits, are protected,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said in a roundtable discussion with reporters last month. “That is consistent with where we are; that’s consistent with where the president not only has been, but is. If we do nothing, we will not save Medicare and Social Security.”

Mulvaney, too, has said that any Republican reform would be consistent with Trump’s promise, by defining the act of “saving” Social Security and Medicare as anything that allows them to meet obligations — even and especially if those obligations are reduced. On Monday, pushed for details by Hewitt, Mulvaney suggested that the replacement of sections of the Affordable Care Act could begin the process of unwinding entitlement spending.

“Clearly, you can help fix and solve Medicaid as part of this larger Obamacare replacement, right, that the two things are tied together. So if we get Obamacare replacement right, it might also allow us to fix Medicaid,” Mulvaney said. “I don’t think you’re going to see this president have any interest in raising the retirement age anytime soon. But we need to address things like Social Security disability, which you and I both know is one of the fastest growing and probably one of the most abused mandatory programs in the country.”

While the GOP’s ACA “replacement” bill has not been released yet — it is expected to come this week — the most-discussed change to Medicaid would be block-granting the program, giving states a fixed amount of money to continue the program, but giving them more flexibility to cut spending.

That, progressive policy analysts say, could lead to greater out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries. But according to Mulvaney, anything that kept benefits flowing “I think really what this president is interested in doing is not affecting the benefits for folks, and saving these programs long term. And I think there’s a way to do that.”