U.S. Senate Confirms Burwell as White House Budget Chief

The U.S. Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as director of the White House budget office, adding a key player to this summer’s looming battle over raising the debt limit.

The chamber easily approved her nomination today, voting 96-0 to install the one-time Clinton administration aide as just the second woman to run the Office of Management and Budget.

It’s a job that will give her a pivotal role in negotiations with congressional Republicans over raising the borrowing cap as well as overseeing the government’s $3.7 trillion budget and managing the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

“Our country does face serious fiscal and economic challenges that we have got to work together to address,” Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “She’s the right person to come into this leadership role at this important time.”

Burwell replaces Jeffrey Zients, who has been acting director of OMB since January 2012.

She will be returning to familiar territory, having served as deputy OMB director near the end of the Clinton administration -- a time, like today, when government was under divided control and the budget was a major issue. A former Rhodes Scholar, she also was President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff as well as chief of staff to his Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin.

Saying No

Burwell has worked in philanthropy since leaving Washington, running the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before heading up the Wal-Mart Foundation. That experience in deciding how to dole out limited funds to anti-malarial programs and other public health initiatives taught her to say “no” to those long on good intentions and short on funding, she told lawmakers -- a skill that will be useful in budget negotiations.

“You can imagine the many great things that I see every day that people want to fund,” Burwell told the Senate Budget Committee at her confirmation hearing earlier this month. “Most of my days are filled with ‘no’ --there are many more ‘nos’ than ‘yeses,’ actually, when one works in philanthropy. And so that is an experience that I have on a daily basis.”

She will begin work at OMB just as fiscal issues are reappearing on lawmakers’ agendas after a brief lull. Forced furloughs of air traffic controllers causing airline delays around the country are refocusing Congress’s attention on the automatic budget cuts that took effect last month.

Debt Limit

In addition, the latest debt-ceiling increase expires May 19, and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, says that raising the debt limit again will have to be accompanied by equivalent spending cuts. Lawmakers can probably stave off having to lift the ceiling until August, when Congress is scheduled to recess for about a month, because the Treasury Department can use accounting maneuvers to avoid breaching the cap.

Another round of sequestration begins in less than six months. That will cut an additional $109 billion out of the federal budget, half from defense. The government’s annual budget process, meanwhile, is off to a slow start after the administration delayed releasing its 2014 plan for two months.

Burwell, the daughter of West Virginia optometrist, is the first woman to head the agency since Alice Rivlin was Clinton’s budget director in the mid-1990s.

She is one of several women President Barack Obama named to cabinet-level positions this year after some women’s groups criticized the administration for selecting men to lead the State, Treasury and Defense departments. Obama has also named Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Sally Jewell to run the Interior Department; Jewell was confirmed on April 10.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Faler in Washington at bfaler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net

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