Lew Lauds Weiss for Treasury as Warren-Led Opposition Grows

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew supported undersecretary nominee Antonio Weiss amid growing opposition from his own party and said the Obama administration will continue to press for Weiss’s confirmation.

“There is a need for us to have someone who has experience in the markets, in the financial world, and I think Antonio is extraordinarily well-qualified,” Lew said in an interview at a conference in New York today.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has led the campaign against Weiss, saying the Lazard Ltd. investment banker isn’t qualified and that the administration doesn’t need more Wall Street veterans. She has also faulted President Barack Obama’s choice of a nominee whose work as an investment banker included the type of tax-inversion deals the president has sought to curb.

After Lew spoke, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the latest Democrat to oppose Weiss, bringing the number of declared opponents to seven, including one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with Democrats.

“I don’t have confidence that he will work to even the playing field for middle-class families and small businesses who need a fair shot to get ahead,” Baldwin said in a statement.

Lew defended Weiss’s qualifications and integrity today, saying criticism of his compensation as a banker was misplaced.

Policy Principles

“He comes with a background that is, I think, as strong as one could ask, and with a kind of integrity and belief in policy principles that are consistent with the administration,” Lew said in remarks broadcast on CNBC. “We’re going to continue to press the case forward in the new Congress.”

Republicans, who haven’t criticized Weiss, next month will take control of the Senate, which must confirm Weiss’s nomination to undersecretary for domestic finance, the No. 3 official in the Treasury who manages the $13 trillion U.S. debt.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said he hadn’t made a final decision on the nomination and hasn’t met with Weiss.

“He seems like he would be a good fit for that job,” Portman said today in a brief interview. “He’s got experience that you think the Treasury Department would want to have.”

Lew, who worked as a Citigroup Inc. executive for more than two years before joining the Obama administration in 2009, alluded to his own confirmation battle, in which he faced questions about an investment in a Citigroup fund in the Cayman Islands.

‘Dangerous Rule’

“Like in my own case, there are people who disregard 25 years of public service and focus on should you have worked at all in the private sector,” Lew said. “I think that’s a dangerous rule. I think you need people with a background where they’ve worked on the things that they’re going to be making policy decisions on.”

Lew also commented on Weiss’s compensation agreement with Lazard, which may allow him to leave the company with as much as $21.2 million. Lew said that while he understood the “optics issue,” what matters most is that a nominee has integrity and abides by government ethics laws.

Three Senate Democrats -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Al Franken of Minnesota -- yesterday declared their opposition to Weiss. Richard Durbin of Illinois previously said he was opposed.

Short Staffed

A successful effort to derail Weiss’s nomination would leave an already short-staffed domestic finance operation without a permanent leader to manage the public debt for months longer.

Four of the top five positions in the office, which sets policy on many financial and debt-management issues, are either vacant or being filled by temporary replacements who haven’t gone through Senate confirmation for the posts.

The role Weiss is seeking will matter in the remainder of the Obama administration. A political fight over raising the debt ceiling could reemerge next year, and a shrinking budget deficit is forecast to widen again, requiring the Treasury to sell more debt.

Wall Street ties could prove useful. The top domestic finance official is the department’s main liaison with the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of fixed-income investors on Wall Street that convenes quarterly to discuss the supply of and demand for bills, notes and bonds.

If confirmed, Weiss, 48, would also work with regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission and meet with financial executives to implement parts of the Dodd-Frank law, the measure intended to prevent another financial crisis.

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