OMB’s Nussle looks to positive outcome for budget impasse

Confirmed last month by a Senate vote of 69-24, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jim Nussle has solid experience in fiscal matters as a former House Budget Committee chairman. The Iowa Republican will be on the front lines for President Bush as Democrats and the administration hash out several appropriations bills during the coming months.

Q: How has your experience as a House Budget Committee chairman influenced your work so far at OMB?
A: It’s a fair question, but it’s probably too soon to tell. I think there are some similarities with the skill set. No question about it, you have to be on top of an enormous amount of detail. You have to be able to be a good listener with not only the fantastic, professional staff you have here at OMB but also with your colleagues in the administration as well as former colleagues on the Hill. Knowing the budget process, certainly having the Budget chairman position gave me some insight into the process on how Congress works, how the budget process works, the interaction with the administration. Finally, it gave me a chance that I hope will continue and that was to work with a lot of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in hopefully a constructive way.

Q: Many observers expected your nomination process to be rough, but you were confirmed quite easily by a Senate vote. Why do you think that was?
A: First of all, the process is very partisan. That goes almost without saying. Every time you get closer to Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, it appears even more contentious. So being nominated in the midst of all that I think made it even more problematic. I thought it was a very respectful process. If you just count legislative days, I went through about as fast as you could go through for having to report to the two committees.

Q: Former OMB Director Rob Portman was perceived as a smooth-talker, while you are seen as more rough-and-tumble. Has that perception been a challenge for you so far?
A: I don’t sense it. I think in part it was good rhetoric, but I’m not sure it was accurate reality. As you say, it is a perception. No one could find a time or come forward with a time where I was confrontational, they just said “confrontational.” The budget process is naturally confrontational. If passion and, in this instance, your ability to communicate your position on these issues is at fault, then there is a lot of fault up on the Hill. I look at it as a positive, being able communicate your position in a passionate way, not as a negative.

Q: Isn’t there a political risk for Republicans if there is a government shutdown? Won’t Democrats be able to argue your party is forcing a shutdown over millions that could go to worthy programs, such as veterans and defense?
A: First of all, I chose not to speculate about that because I think we have navigated this very successfully, very professionally in a nonpartisan way. As the first order of business I had to handle, I think it was handled very well on both sides. People will argue whatever they chose to argue if negative situations start occurring. It’s possible, but I think we can come to a final agreement here at the beginning of the next fiscal year in a positive, expeditious manner so we can get on with things.

Q: About $22 billion in discretionary spending has become the magic number in the budget debate between Congress and the administration. Is that number set, meaning vetoes for several, if not all appropriations bills, or is there room to maneuver?
A: Before you can have any conversation, they haven’t passed a bill at $22 billion. We know that’s what they are angling towards, but they haven’t done that yet, even. So that’s the first. Second, it’s not just $22 billion. There was additional domestic spending that was added to the supplemental in May, $17 billion, so it is on top of additional spending already for the year in the number of the domestic accounts. And of course $22 billion is never just how much it is. Twenty-two billion, for instance, as an example, over the next five years is $205 billion. The president has made it very clear on where his position is and I don’t need to reinterpret what he has said as a new guy here. I think it is up to the Congress to work on this and get it done.

Q: Would you run for office again? Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is up for reelection in 2008.
A: Every bone in my body says no, but I am told that it’s kind of a silly idea to make those Shermanesque kind of statements — never say never. So I am not ever saying never, but I have no designs, let’s put it that way.

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