As if President Obama didn’t get enough obstruction from Republicans, the White House is now locked in an intensifying stand-off with a leading Senate Democrat over filling the crucial job of White House budget director.
One month ago, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., put a “hold” on the nomination of Jacob (“Jack”) Lew to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. At the time, Landrieu’s biggest demand was that Obama lift his drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. But when the president did lift the moratorium last week, Landrieu raised the price of her cooperation and vaguely demanded that the administration “accelerate” the permitting process and come up with an “action plan to get the entire industry in the Gulf of Mexico back to work.”
It wasn’t clear exactly what kind of “action plan’’ would satisfy Landrieu, but she has yet to lift her hold and said she won’t make any decisions until Congress returns for a lame-duck session in mid-November.
The delay in confirming Lew, who received unusual bipartisan support from the Senate Budget Committee, comes at a bad time. The administration’s annual budget process is well under way for the next fiscal year, and the White House is riding herd on all government agencies to meet specific savings targets.
The impasse has already lasted so long that some budget mavens are speculating that Obama will try an end-run around the Senate and appoint Lew as acting director. A provision of the Vacancies Act allows a Senate-confirmed officer of one government agency to be appointed by the president as an acting officer of another one. Lew qualifies: He was confirmed by the Senate for his former post as deputy secretary of state.
But there’s no evidence that the White House will pursue that route; all signs point to a stalemate when the Senate reconvenes in November.
Kenneth Baer, OMB communications director, would not consider the possibility of resorting to the Vacancies Act in a statement to National Journal Thursday.
“We urge the Senate to act on this nomination as soon as possible so that Jack can get to work on the FY 2012 budget,” Baer said.
Some budget analysts speculate the White House is worried that appointing Lew as acting director would simply encourage more senators to demand money for pet projects as their price for confirming him on the Senate floor.
But other analysts say the lengthening absence of a visible sheriff in town will leave the White House more vulnerable to imperious cabinet secretaries and their ambitions for ever-bigger fiefdoms.
“Someone who is a well-established, well-recognized power within the administration can stand up to cabinet secretaries,” said Peter Davis, a former budget official in Congress and now president of Davis Capital Investment Ideas, a consulting firm in Washington. “It’s harder to say no when no one’s in charge.”
Lew’s nomination has been in limbo since July, when Orszag stepped down. Jeffrey Zients is serving as acting director and Rob Nabors as acting deputy director.
Davis said the stand-off won’t lead to a catastrophe, but is far from ideal for Obama. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to put blood on the street, but it is the kind of thing that’s going to cause a lot of consternation over good management of the government.”