White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell learned her management skills from some of the masters: former President Bill Clinton, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, and onetime Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Shortly after being selected as the new head of the Office of Management and Budget earlier this year, the longtime Washington hand was taught something else: Those Clinton-era lessons may be no match for today’s House Republicans.
“This is not like it was when you and I were here before,” Congressman Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and ally of House Speaker John Boehner, said he told her in a private meeting with Republican House members. “Some of our new guys ran against us as much as they ran against you.”
As congressional negotiators work to craft a budget before a self-imposed Dec. 13 deadline, Burwell, 48, is charged with securing an agreement between Democrats and Republicans that has eluded the White House for five years.
Some of her strongest supporters wonder whether anyone -- even someone with Burwell’s credentials and connections -- can break through the Washington gridlock that last month led to a 16-day partial government shutdown and brought the country to the brink of default.
“There’s no one in the world that you could put in OMB that’s going to change the fact that there’s a certain number in the Republican conference that don’t want to fund the government at any level,” said Scott Lilly, a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee who worked with Burwell during the budget fights of the 1990s.
Officials and friends say Burwell’s grasp of fiscal issues, deep Washington ties, and “very Seattle” style from her years with the Gates Foundation have won fans on both sides of the aisle and give her unique qualifications for the job.
“I’ve seen the president develop a great deal of trust in her over a very short period of time,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who was Burwell’s boss during the Clinton administration. “He felt like he knew her because he heard people like me and others talk about her so much.”
John Podesta, who shared duties with Burwell as a deputy White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, said the rancor in Washington stoked by anti-tax Tea Party Republicans came as a bit of a surprise to his ex-colleague, who left a job as head of the Wal-Mart Foundation for her new post.
“When she came back she kind of knew,” Podesta said. “But particularly the House caucus members, you have to experience first-hand to understand how out of control it is.”
She doesn’t shrink from challenges. Before becoming a mother of two she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and took 100-mile bike treks -- Burwell acknowledges that the difficulty she faces in today’s partisan climate are greater than in the 1990s.
“The main difference that I would articulate is the alignment between the Republicans during that period,” the West Virginia native said in an interview last week. That unity “helps one get to solutions,” she said.
As deputy director of OMB under Clinton, Burwell was dispatched by then-agency director Lew to negotiate budgets in the final years of the administration. Lawmakers were skeptical that the 33-year-old aide could manage the complexities of appropriations bills. She prevailed because her understanding of budget policy and politics impressed “crusty old men” in both parties, recalled Lilly.
“People were surprised and pleased that she was a tough negotiator,” he said.
Burwell, only the second woman to head the budget office after Alice Rivlin, is leveraging those decades of relationships into a congressional charm offensive. She has held regular meetings with Representative Nita Lowey, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, joined White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough for dinners with Republican senators, and met with House Republicans.
Before she was confirmed, she asked Arkansas Republican Congressman Steve Womack, whom she knew from her time in Bentonville with the Wal-Mart Foundation, to set up a talk with House Republicans.
What followed was a 90-minute session around a conference table in a meeting room in the Longworth House Office Building with a dozen committee chairmen and other lawmakers, including Womack and Cole.
“I wanted everybody to know that I know the lady and as they get to know her they will be impressed with her ability to understand the issues that divide us,” said Womack.
The meeting didn’t break new ground: Burwell restated President Barack Obama’s position that any cuts in entitlement programs must be packaged with additional tax revenue, a condition that Republicans said they couldn’t accept. Yet both sides discussed how to build a relationship.
“My instinct was she would be very useful because she’s a newer commodity to this administration,” said Cole. “She’s not been seen as an attack dog or guardian of the gate.”
Nonetheless, her connections within the White House are broad and deep. National Security adviser Susan Rice helped introduce Burwell to her husband, lawyer Stephen Burwell, now a stay-at-home father to their children. The two women first met as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University, where Rice coached Burwell on the school’s basketball team.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was a dormitory mate at Harvard University. As chief operating officer of the Gates Foundation, Burwell recruited Raj Shah, now the administrator of USAID. And she worked closely with the other members of the president’s economic team -- Gene Sperling and Jason Furman -- during the Clinton years, when she also served as Rubin’s chief of staff at the National Economic Council.
“I remember the group of people in the Clinton administration who’d worked together in the Carter years and you were like, ‘Huh, those people are ancient,’” she recalled. “That would be me now.”
One person she didn’t know well was Obama. While Burwell played a role on his transition team in 2008, the two had never met before she interviewed for the OMB job.
Their relationship deepened, say colleagues, during the federal government shutdown, when Burwell reported to the president in the Oval Office with daily updates.
While still not part of Obama’s innermost circle of long-time aides, she’s now a member of a four person team -- along with the president, McDonough and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors -- charged with managing the budget talks.
“She’s earned a great deal of respect and admiration across the administration,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who also worked with Burwell in the Clinton administration. “Her guidance to us in the cabinet departments is never contradicted.”
Obama admires her efficiency, aides say. In a recent cabinet meeting, Burwell kept her remarks on the president’s management agenda, an OMB initiative that aims to make government work better, to four minutes. Three cabinet secretaries then made short presentations on the subject.
The president complimented her for an “admirably crisp” presentation -- then said he wanted to spend more time on the subject, according to an aide.
Her tendency to resort to corporate jargon, first learned in her 20s during a stint with the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, is balanced by a warm touch. On her first day as director, Burwell welcomed agency staff into her gold-trimmed office for cupcakes and punch with her family.
Even with her government experience, the job has been a “baptism by fire,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
OMB had primary responsibility for managing the government during last month’s shutdown, approving plans to furlough employees, deciding who could return to work, and which facilities had to close.
It was Burwell’s name that was on the letter formally closing the government.
She managed the crisis with an understaffed agency hit hard by budget cuts. During Clinton’s administration, OMB had 517 employees. When Burwell arrived, 454 were working at the agency and key deputy positions were vacant, leaving morale low as aides took on more responsibility for lower pay.
Building the agency has been one of her top challenges, said Burwell. She has begun to hire, stocking the office with advisers, including longtime White House economic policy aide Brian Deese and McKinsey director Beth Cobert as deputies, and Georgetown Law Professor Howard Shelanski to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
“The single biggest surprise is the strain on the organization,” she said. “I underestimated it and probably didn’t do my homework as well as I should have. Making sure we’re attracting the highest quality of talent is going to make a huge difference.”
Her calm demeanor was honed during her 12 years out of government, say former colleagues. She joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as Gates and his wife began to transfer billions of dollars into their charity.
Burwell oversaw the foundation’s finance department, built its global development practice, and managed relationships with partners in the corporate and government worlds.
“The people at the White House had said: If you needed something to get done you gave it to Sylvia,” said Patty Stonesifer, former chief executive officer of the Gates Foundation. “We had a lot of things we needed to get done.”
Burwell kept the mission focused on the communities being served. In her office, she referred to a photo of a 2-year-old African girl, named Indiea, being bathed in a bucket as “the boss.” A version of the photo, rendered in a Technicolor quilt, now hangs high on the wall of her OMB office.
“Everyone should have their photos of how they think about what our work is,” she said. “Connecting them to that is the most important thing I can do.”