WASHINGTON — Republican senators lashed out at the White House budget chief during a hearing on Tuesday, with Sen. Jeff Sessions calling President Barack Obama’s proposed budget “a very unserious response to a very serious problem.”
Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, echoed the president’s defense of the proposal for spending in 2012 as a “down payment” on the deficit and a precursor to substantive discussions on entitlement reform, but faced criticism that the administration hadn’t shown enough leadership on the issue, and hadn’t adhered enough to the recommendations of last year’s bipartisan fiscal commission.
The hearing before the Senate Budget Committee began to set up the political fight ahead on the administration’s spending plan, which was released Monday. Congress must approve the budget.
“Our financial future hangs in the balance, but the president has suggested he’s waiting for Congress,” said Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is the committee’s ranking member. “Did Winston Churchill say he was waiting for parliament to come up with a plan to win the war?”
Sessions continued to make his point that he sees a lack of leadership, a refrain repeated in committee rooms across Capitol Hill as the administration fanned out to make its case for the budget. (Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner faced heat from Republicans over the budget plan during a House committee hearing.)
“My goal here is not to excoriate the president, but for me it’s a point of sadness, not satisfaction, that we’ve seen such a weak response,” he added.
The budget director responded that fiscal stability needed to come before any serious overhaul of the budgeting system. “You have to walk before you run,” he said.
Lew added that the budget “puts the nation on the path for what we’re going to call for the moment fiscal sustainability,” but “we all agree there’s more work to do.”
Each senator at the hearing seemed to acknowledge as much, but a number — especially Republicans — were concerned that the president’s budget isn’t far-reaching enough.
Sessions and Lew both seemed exasperated with each other during their allotted five-minute back-and-forth.
The GOP senator told Lew that his budget’s predictions weren’t taking possible “economic shocks” into account. “This idea that you’re balancing the budget somehow when you’re not is the Washington theory that got us into this fix,” he said.
Lew responded with a parrot of Obama’s press conference earlier in the day: “We’re going to cut the credit card, not add to the balance, and then we’ll work on paying the old bill.”
“No, we are adding to the balance,” Sessions shot back. “And we’re not cutting up the credit card, that’s just a fact,” he added, before asking Lew if the budget was misleading.
“Senator, having sat in this chair and presented three budgets with surpluses, I know the difference between a surplus and a deficit,” Lew responded. “We’re not going to get to the surplus until we can pay down the debt because of the interest payments.”
“Oh you mean that reducing the debt is paying down the debt, is that Washington speak?” Sessions replied.
“What I said was, we’re going to stop adding to the debt,” Lew responded.
Other Republican Senators, including John Ensign of Nevada, continued to challenge Lew on his characterization of the budget’s ability to make spending more manageable. Ensign interrupted Lew as he was saying he realized that Washington budget-speak was “a little confusing.”
“Well I think it’s dishonest,” Ensign said.
Lew faced more muted critiques from Democrats.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the committee’s chairman, said that the proposal had some good ideas in it, but didn’t properly address the long-term budget problems. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said that the administration had ignored some of the politically tougher issues outlined in the bipartisan Fiscal Commission.
Lew responded that the administration had taken some key Fiscal Commission ideas into account, such as the pay freeze for federal employees, and “the move towards reforming medical malpractice.”
Lew entered the room by noting that the last time he had testified at this kind of a hearing — near the end of the Clinton administration when he had also served as budget director — he had brought a chart projecting a $5.6 trillion surplus within 10 years. “How far away that seems,” he said.