President Obama’s current chief of staff and former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, does not know how many votes it takes to pass a budget in the United State Senate, judging by interviews Sunday.
Lew made a series of factual blunders on the Sunday talk show circuit. In an effort to defend Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) refusal to even hold a vote on a Democratic budget proposal, Lew incorrectly stated—twice—that Republicans would be able to filibuster the measure, thereby forcing a 60-vote threshold for passage. Senate Democrats have not passed a budget in 1,019 days.
“[Reid’s] not saying that they shouldn’t pass a budget," Lew said on CNN’s State of the Union. “But we also need to be honest. You can’t pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes, and you can't get 60 votes without bipartisan support.”
“Unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed,” he added.
Lew later repeated this line on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You know, one of the things about the United States Senate that I think the American people have realized is that it takes 60 not 50 votes to pass something,” he said.
Lew’s statement is patently false, however. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 prohibits filibusters of budgets, requiring only a simple majority, or 51 votes, for passage. In the event of a 50-50 tie, Vice President Joe Biden would cast the deciding vote.
As the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out: “The budget resolution … requires only a majority vote to pass, and its consideration is one of the few actions that cannot be filibustered in the Senate.”
Democrats currently occupy 51 seats in the Senate. The number rises to 53 when one includes independents Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who frequently vote with Democrats. Majority Leader Reid would therefore need exactly zero Republican votes to pass a budget.
A White House official conceded to ABC’s Jake Tapper that Lew misspoke, saying the Chief of Staff “was clearly referencing the general gridlock in Congress that makes accomplishing even the most basic tasks nearly impossible.”
Republicans, meanwhile, responded in disbelief to Lew’s comments, and worried that his misstatements were part of a deliberate effort to mislead Americans voters. “For some time now an effort has been underway not only to campaign against Congress, but also to suggest Republicans control all of Congress,” a GOP congressional aide told the Washington Free Beacon. “This morning, Lew was either implementing this strategy, or the former OMB Director is woefully ignorant of the congressional budget process.”
“Today’s incident should cast a long shadow of doubt on the White House’s claims about their budget’s fiscal impact,” said Stephen Miller, Republican spokesman for the Senate Budget Committee.
Lew is not the first senior Democrat to make this mistake. Sen. Dick Durbin, the majority whip, when asked during a July 2011 appearance on Fox New Sunday why Democrats had yet to pass a budget, responded: “It’s called 60 votes.”
President Obama will formally unveil his budget for fiscal year 2013 on Monday. Early reports reveal that the White House proposal will project a $1.33 trillion deficit for fiscal year 2012, even larger than last year’s deficit. The president’s latest proposal means that he will fall well short of his goal to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his term.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently testified that the lack of economic certainty, including the absence of a Senate budget, was “a negative for growth.” Despite Bernanke’s remarks, however, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the White House has “no opinion” on whether the Senate should pass a budget.