Burwell poised to get top budget job

Sylvia Burwell, President Obama's nominee to head up the White House's budget office, seemed poised to get the job after a final confirmation hearing on Wednesday. 

Burwell coasted through her second hearing in two days on Capitol Hill, making it nearly certain that she will gain Senate approval to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) through a thicket of challenging fiscal issues. 

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Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she intends to hold a vote on Burwell's nomination sometime early next week. 

The hearing took place on the day the president's $3.77 trillion fiscal 2014 budget was released, two months after it was initially due.

Most of the Budget panel's members expressed support for the former head of The Wal-Mart Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the retail giant, during Wednesday's hearing. 

She emerged nearly unscathed by harsh questioning about the Obama administration's budget priorities except for a brief — but testy — exchange with panel ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) over the nation's budget turmoil. 

Sessions, who expects her to sail through the confirmation process, said he felt like she was using some of the same "spin tactics" on the debt already in use by the White House. 

He pressed Burwell about whether she is planning to submit a balanced budget in her first year on the job. 

In response, she argued that the nation is in a "very, very deep hole" and said it would be difficult to predict how she might approach a 2015 budget blueprint without knowing the condition of the nation's economy.

But Sessions cut off Burwell's response, saying her answer made it clear that "you won't submit a balanced budget."

He urged Burwell to seek out ways to lower the nation's $16.8 trillion debt load, which he argues is already hindering economic growth. 

Burwell told Sessions that she agreed with him that the debt level compared with gross domestic product needs to be on a downward trajectory, and that a return to regular order would be a good place to start. 

Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration about the ability of the Obama administration to meet the yearly budget deadlines, and criticized the budget office for its inability to produce other yearly budget reports on time. 

Burwell said she hopes to improve the process once she starts the job and that she would do "everything in my power to get them in on time." 

She argued timely blueprints were an important part of the process that led to a balanced budget in the late 1990s, when she served for two years as deputy director of the OMB in the Clinton administration. 

Burwell said the budget process is designed to bring all parties together — the White House and Congress — in determining spending priorities that are needed to guide the appropriations process. 

She added that late budgets are partly responsible for the uncertainty that is hampering growth and forcing businesses to pull back on investment instead of feeding the economic recovery. 

Still, she pushed back against the idea of enacting a balanced budget amendment in questioning by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who said he is warming to the theory that it could spur greater focus on the objective. 

"We should be able to make decisions without an amendment," said Burwell.

But, she argued, that it is a judgment call as to when and where lawmakers and the White House specifically take aim and "make our way to a place to balance."

She reiterated that it is part of her job to not just make the process more efficient and productive, but to ensure that "the nation's promises to its people must be weighed first."

"Part of my job is making sure that the current economic recovery gets on its way and continues," she said. "The challenge is to make sure we are producing the best outcome for a healthy economy for our workers and businesses."

During a Tuesday hearing, Republicans on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee signaled on that Burwell largely has their support to take over the bruising job. 

When faced with cost questions about the healthcare law, she focused on the nation's high cost of services, saying the trick is figuring how to "align outcomes to what we're paying for."

"That is at the root of trying to bend curves, by getting costs down and quality up."

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) argued that virtually all the debts and deficits down the road could be attributed to entitlement programs such as Medicare, and said that is the top problem to be tackled. 

Faced with the prospect of trimming budgets and reducing deficits, Burwell said her work in philanthropy during the past decade has been "filled with so many more nos than yeses" a trait she will need as OMB director. 

She vowed to "set the tone at the top" and make changes to the culture of an institution to put the nation on a more sustainable path to recovery.