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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both say they want to pass a budget deal. They would like to avert deep spending cuts for at least another year. But talks have stalled, and many on Capitol Hill blame acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney for this. He has annoyed some lawmakers, even though they have known him for years as a former South Carolina congressman. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell reports.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Most Republicans working on spending issues aren't exactly eager to talk about their feelings about Mick Mulvaney. And they've got a couple of different strategies when they're asked what it's like to work with one of Trump's closest advisers. One option, be vague, like Texas Senator John Cornyn.
JOHN CORNYN: Mick Mulvaney. Well, obviously, he's got the presence here. And he - he's a fiscal hawk.
SNELL: For Cornyn, that part is great. Mulvaney is famous in Washington for his budget-cutting beliefs, and Cornyn generally agrees with the idea of fiscal frugality. But Mulvaney's negotiating prowess?
CORNYN: He doesn't have much experience in that realm. But, you know, people grow into their jobs, too, so I won't prejudge.
SNELL: Mulvaney's latest White House job is different than when he was the famously cantankerous congressman from South Carolina. Then he railed against anything but the deepest-cutting spending proposals. Now he's negotiating with lawmakers. And sometimes the Republicans at the table with him just downplay his role entirely, like Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby after a recent round of talks.
RICHARD SHELBY: Well, he was involved yesterday in the talks, but the lead was the secretary of the treasury.
SNELL: Ask him about Mulvaney's part in these conversations, and more often than not, you'll get an answer praising Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin instead. Shelby's counterpart in the negotiations, Democrat Patrick Leahy, does the same thing. He says he and Shelby could get a deal, and Mnuchin gets that. But Mulvaney, not so much.
PATRICK LEAHY: Secretary Mnuchin understands that. People who never voted for appropriations bills don't understand how that works.
SNELL: Lawmakers from both parties grumbled during the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year that Mulvaney contributed to Trump's refusal to reach a deal. But criticizing one of the president's closest advisers is a touchy subject for Republicans. So the most popular tactic is for them to ignore questions about Mulvaney entirely, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Can you tell me what the role is of Mick Mulvaney in these budget talks? Has he been productive or helpful in any way?
McConnell just kept walking. Democrats, though, are not so coy. They clearly remember clashing with Mulvaney, and many do not trust him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was visibly frustrated after Mulvaney claimed that Democrats were holding up budget talks with demands for additional spending.
NANCY PELOSI: Do we have to waste time on Mike (ph) Mulvaney's characterization of my remarks?
SNELL: Her heated response, peppered with references to Mike, not Mick, recalled those battles.
PELOSI: Mulvaney's one of the people who shut down government because they didn't want to lift the debt ceiling. And so he has no credibility on the subject whatsoever.
SNELL: But many of Mulvaney's conservative friends blame his style, not his credibility, for the clashes. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is one of Mulvaney's closest friends in Washington.
TIM SCOTT: I love him so I'm not going to say anything that gets him in any trouble.
SNELL: He says Mulvaney is just unvarnished and direct in a town full of nuance.
SCOTT: He is pretty succinct and clear. And that is part of his attraction and part of, I'm sure, what others may not like about him.
SNELL: Regardless of whatever members of Congress think about Mulvaney, Texas Republican John Cornyn is right. Mulvaney doesn't need to worry about winning a popularity contest on Capitol Hill. He just has to satisfy his boss, the audience of one, President Trump. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.
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