Blocking potential Treasury nominee gets the GOP nowhere in debt ceiling fight

White House photo

Republicans, embittered after a fiscal cliff fight that went to the Democrats, have made it abundantly clear they are looking for a pound of flesh in the form of spending cuts in exchange for solving the next fiscal-crisis-in-waiting -- the debt ceiling.

But don’t expect the GOP to slam the brakes on the heavily-anticipated nomination of Jacob Lew for Treasury secretary in some bid to extract more leverage for spending cuts or entitlement reforms.

True, Republicans “would use any leverage we have,” as Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., frankly put it. But the GOP sees little advantage to be gained in holding up Lew if he is picked for Treasury secretary, senior Senate aides, Republican strategists, and policy analysts argue.

For one, the attempt could backfire and serve only to strengthen Obama’s hand as Republicans are cast once again as intransigent obstructionists, blocking the ability to advance economic policy debates for their own political gain.

“Blocking the Treasury secretary could be a useful public relations tool that the president could use against Republicans,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “It’s more likely that they will question Jack Lew’s approach to the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling and sequestration, rather than try to hold him up.”

Another reason blocking Lew could hurt Republicans? It’s hard for them to argue the administration needs to come to the negotiating table on spending cuts and then prevent it from putting in place its top economic negotiator. And with other matters like the president’s budget proposal around the corner, the looming sequester deadline, and the continuing resolution to fund the government, members want to have a senior economic adviser from the administration who can be hauled to the Hill for questioning -- and scolding.

“It’s always helpful to have a secretary of Treasury when you are negotiating, and I suspect most Republicans would feel that way too,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “I don’t think most people would see it as effective leverage to try to hold up the secretary of the Treasury’s nomination.”

Then there’s just plain old logistics. The GOP can only fight so many battles over top-level nominees at once, without undermining the persuasiveness of those arguments and looking like the proverbial boy who cried wolf.

Republicans already successfully sank Susan Rice’s nomination for secretary of State before she clinched it and immediately began raising concerns with the nominations of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense and John Brennan for Central Intelligence Agency director as soon as they were announced.

As one GOP aide put it: “You have to pick your battles wisely… Rice was a fight that was fought and won.”

That does not mean Lew’s nomination would receive overwhelming support or that Republicans won’t use the opportunity to start laying the groundwork for the next round of fiscal fights.

The Treasury secretary nomination is expected to be announced imminently and the debt ceiling limit could be hit as soon as mid-February, leaving a confirmation process to butt right up against a major, looming economic time-bomb. If the debt ceiling is not addressed it could result in a devastating default for the U.S. on its debts.

“I would never recommend to my boss to let a Treasury secretary go through until debt ceiling is done,” said one Republican Senate aide. “The message is Obama got what he wanted on taxes. Now he has to deliver on spending cuts.”

But even for those so inclined, the road to thwart such a confirmation is an uphill climb. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is likely to schedule time for a floor vote on such a cabinet-level position, meaning that as long as there are 60 votes in support of Lew, it would be practically impossible for a handful of objectionable Republicans to block his confirmation.

Lew has another advantage. Having run the Office of Management and Budget and served as a deputy secretary of State, he is a veteran of the Senate confirmation process. Without some sort of fresh and tangible tarnish to his record, it will be hard for senators to legitimately argue he lacks qualification for the position.

“Jack has been confirmed twice. Unless he has done something illegal, immoral, or unethical in the meantime, the only thing they can talk about is policy,” said Stan Collender, a seasoned budget adviser, who is a director with Qorvis Communications. “Republicans will almost certainly use the confirmation process to talk about tax policy and how Obama wants to keep raising taxes and everything in between. At the end of the day it’s hard to picture him not getting confirmed especially with 55 Democrats in the Senate.”

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