Senate Republicans: Lew will have to answer for White House tactics

Republicans say Jack Lew will have to answer for what they view as the president’s bare-knuckle tactics when Lew undergoes the Senate confirmation process for Treasury secretary.

It is not often that members of the minority party get to grill the chief of staff of a sitting president, and there is little love lost between Senate Republicans and President Obama.

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Lew has served as White House chief of staff for the past year. He headed the Office of Management and Budget from 2010 to 2012. The president will nominate Lew on Thursday afternoon for the top post at Treasury.

Republicans are frustrated that Obama has not put forth what they would consider a credible plan to reform entitlement programs. And they were angered when after the election he traveled to Pennsylvania and Virginia for campaign-style events to pressure Republicans to extend the middle-class tax cuts.

Senate GOP aides say Lew will be called to account for the White House’s tactics when he comes before the Senate Finance Committee.

"He's coming to the Senate from the chief of staff's role in the White House and this White House just points the finger at everyone else. It refuses to take the blame for the bad things that are happening. This is a White House that is overly political and not really interested in alternate points of view," said a senior Senate GOP aide.

"He's going to be facing a lot of questions related to his involvement in the White House. He's the top dog over there. He's responsible for the direction," the aide said. "It's a shame the president would send along such a divisive figure."

The last time senators had a chance to publicly question a sitting president's chief of staff was in 1985, when then-White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III was nominated by former President Ronald Reagan to serve as Treasury secretary.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underwent the Senate confirmation process in 2011, more than 14 years after he completed his stint as former President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

But the president could invoke executive privilege to keep Republicans from prying too deeply into White House strategy and tactics.

Kenneth A. Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said presidents have invoked executive privilege in a variety of circumstances because the privilege is not well-defined. But he noted that courts can limit its use.

“It protects communications in the White House so advisers can freely advise the president without another branch looking into it,” he said.

Republicans caution they are not likely to have enough support to block Lew because Democrats control 55 seats and only need to pick off a handful of GOP members to secure his confirmation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has signaled he will attempt to block Lew’s nomination because of what Sessions has charged was false testimony Lew delivered to the Budget Committee two years ago.

“Jack Lew must never be secretary of Treasury. His testimony before the Senate Budget Committee less than two years ago was so outrageous and false that it alone disqualifies,” Sessions said in a draft statement that will be released when the nomination is made official.

Sessions faults Lew for testifying to the Budget Committee that the president’s budget would not add to the debt. Lew made his statement based on a calculation that did not take into account interest payments on the debt. Sessions called it the “most direct and important false assertion during my entire time in Washington."

Lew further piqued Republican anger last year when, during an interview with CNN anchor Candy Crowley, he asserted that Senate Democrats had not been able to pass a budget because of Republican filibusters. Senate rules do not allow the budget resolution to be filibustered.

Republicans have been left flummoxed in recent days by Obama’s blunt refusal to even negotiate legislation to raise the debt ceiling, a turnaround from 2011, when Bill Daley was the White House chief of staff.

Lew alienated Republican leaders during the debt-ceiling talks of that year, so much so that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally asked Obama to keep Lew out of the meetings.

“Jack Lew said no 999,000 times out of a million,” Boehner later told author Bob Woodward before correcting himself. “999,999. It was unbelievable. At one point I told the president, 'Keep him out of here. I don’t need somebody who just knows how to say no.' ”

Lew, for his part, thought Boehner was impatient with details, according to Woodward’s book, The Price of Politics.

Senate Democratic leaders say Republicans won’t have enough votes to block Lew.

“This is the biggest empty threat ever. Jack Lew would sail through if the president nominates him,” said a Senate leadership aide.

Some liberals have taken issue with Lew in the past. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted against Lew’s nomination to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget when the Senate Budget Committee considered it in 2010.

Sanders has concerns over whether Lew will show enough independence from Wall Street CEOs when advising the president on economic policy. He voted against Lew after the then-nominee to OMB testified he did not think deregulation of the financial industry was a “proximate cause” of the 2008 financial crisis.

Lew could face questions about his own brief stint on Wall Street, where he was the chief operating officer of Citigroup Alternative Investments, which earned him $950,000 in compensation in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.

But the pushback from liberal groups to Lew’s nomination seems minimal.

“Jack Lew knows how the government works,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. “He knows how bad both sequestration and a government shutdown would be for the country. If the president chooses to make the case against sequestration, Jack Lew is a good budget expert to make the case.”