Facing a potentially crippling fight over deficits and debt, President Obama on Tuesday tapped as his new budget director Jacob J. “Jack” Lew, the same man who helped President Clinton negotiate with a Republican Congress to achieve balanced budgets in the late 1990s.
The announcement of the new director of the Office of Management and Budget was met with praise from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers already are engaged in battles over spending and are looking to the White House to referee.
He said a chief task for Mr. Lew would be to see through the president’s commitment to enforce a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. Mr. Obama already has vowed to veto any spending bills that don’t meet that commitment.
Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and now president of the conservative American Action Forum, said Mr. Lew is a consensus choice likely to breeze through the nomination process.
“You can’t find someone to say something bad about him,” said Mr. Holtz-Eakin, who pointed out that the sentiment was shared by both lawmakers and the staff who worked with him at OMB, which is a difficult double to achieve.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the choice is likely to help Mr. Obama as he tries to engage Congress in spending wars and increasingly has to turn to Republicans, particularly if they make big gains in November’s elections.
“The issues that they have to be engaged in, not by choice but by necessity, are issues that involving reducing spending, where they’re going to need Republican allies,” he said.
The Congressional Budget Office said the government has recorded a deficit of $1 trillion for the first nine months of this fiscal year, which is slightly lower than 2009’s record pace of $1.1 trillion through June. Fiscal 2009 ended with a deficit of $1.4 trillion.
Meanwhile, the nation’s debt topped $13 trillion last month.
Mr. Obama has argued that more spending is needed in the short term to boost the economy, but that Congress will have to take steps next year to begin lowering spending. But Republicans say they want to see cuts now.
On Tuesday, Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee said they will insist on a spending freeze on non-defense discretionary spending this year, which works out to $1.1 trillion.
That still marks a $10 billion increase over current overall spending because it includes a boost for defense, but the move is important because members of the spending committee usually support the final bills no matter which party is in charge.
“The American people are saying to us: You’re spending too much, you’re running up too many debts, and we expect you to do something about it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
The OMB director is a Cabinet-level appointment, and serves as the traffic cop for much of the administrative duties of the White House, including issuing statements of policy on legislation and producing the president’s annual budget submission to Congress.