Working Overtime: Obama’s Budget Boss Jack Lew Grilled On Capitol Hill

Feb 15, 2011 5:56pm

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe reports:   You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Washington who had a longer workday today than Jack Lew.

President Obama’s budget chief had the unenviable task of spending the day on Capitol Hill defending the administration’s new proposal for fiscal year 2012 in the face of widespread criticism from Republicans –- and even Democrats, too.

In all, over five hours on the hot seat.

It didn’t take long for House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan to go on the attack during the first part of the doubleheader before the House panel.

“Why did you duck? Why are you not taking this opportunity to lead?” asked Ryan.

“What’s so frustrating about this is you know the drivers of our debt are the entitlement programs and yet you’re doing nothing to address that,” he said.

“When people elect the president they expect the president to lead and to take on the country’s biggest challenges before they become crises,” he emphasized, “… and you’re not even touching these programs.” 

The government, Lew said, faces “a historic challenge” and needs to “demonstrate to the American people that we can live within our means.” He contended that the new budget provides the “right frame” to make “tough tradeoffs”, but warned that “it is important that we have the right balance.”

“We need to work our way out of the deficits that are driving up our debt and at the same time, make the tough choices to make sure we are in a position to out-educate, out-build, and out-innovate our competitors,” he said.

For much of the hearing GOP lawmakers continued Ryan’s line of questioning as they blasted Lew about the lack of entitlement reforms in the budget proposal.

“The house is burning down and the fact is the administration is playing kickball,” railed Rep. Tom Price, R-GA.

Price argued that people want concrete proposals now, not later.

“They’re scared to death and they don’t see any leadership coming out of this administration when it relates to entitlements,” he said.

Even Democrat Gwen Moore of Wisconsin observed that “members on both sides of the aisle are frustrated.”

At least some Democrats applauded the administration’s plan.

“I think this is the best budget you could have put together, given the circumstances,” praised Rep. Tim Ryan, D-OH.

But Lew’s long day did not end when the House hearing concluded. Instead he crossed Capitol Hill to the Senate side for a hearing before the upper chamber’s budget panel.

The Senate panel’s chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND, warned that “we are on a course that will lead to a financial disaster.”

Noting that the budget included only modest cuts, Conrad said, “I wish there had been even more.”

Across the aisle, the panel’s top Republican Jeff Sessions denounced the administration’s budget proposal as “a very unserious response to a very serious problem.”

But the most heated exchange came at the very end of Lew’s five-and-a-half-hours on the Hill when Sessions sharply criticized the administration’s claims.

“I want to stress again my displeasure with your statement that our budget will get us over the next several years to the point where we can look the American people in the eye and say, ‘We’re not adding to the debt anymore, we’re spending money we have each year, and then we can work on bringing down the national debt.’ I believe that’s inaccurate. I believe any American that heard that would believe that this budget balances – it doesn’t come close to doing so,” Sessions said.

“Under your plan, the President’s plan, at the end of your 10-year budget the interest will be $844 billion in one year, dwarfing all these other agencies and departments and expenditures – something that we’ve never seen before in our country and that threatens our debt structure and our economy.”

“I don’t disagree that we have to take on the debt and we have to pay down the debt and reduce the interest payments and the only thing I take issue with is…” Lew replied, before Sessions cut him off.

“Does this budget do it?” Sessions asked.

“Senator – “

“Does it do it?” Sessions insisted.
“It gets us to the point where we stop adding to the problem with our new spending…” Lew replied.

“The debt goes up every year and the debt is increased – doubled – over this period,” Sessions said.

“I just think that if we’re going to have the kind of conversation that we need to have to resolve this, we have to have it in a way where we respect each other and I respect your position, Senator,” Lew said.

“I can’t respect a position that suggests this budget reduces the debt,” responded Sessions. “If you take that position, we’re talking beyond each other. The Wall Street Journal said about this budget it’s detached from reality.”

“We do have interest payments. We have to control those interest payments in the future,” Lew acknowledged. “There’s a down payment. We have to finish the job.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of opinion,” Sessions said. “I believe Mr. Lew is flatly in error and it cannot continue and I hope the president and he never repeats that this budget balances at any point in the ten years.”

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