Budget Director 'Cautiously Optimistic' on Fiscal Talks

Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the current House-Senate budget talks. Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the current House-Senate budget talks. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell on Wednesday said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the current House-Senate budget talks, describing Democrats as “unified” around a priority framework aimed at growing the economy and replacing sequestration.

“I’m very excited to see the budget talks,” led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “return to what you might call regular order in which the White House submits a budget and Congress acts,” Burwell said during a Politico conference on how women lead change in politics, policy and communities. The White House role is to “be supportive and stay in touch,” she said, qualifying her optimism about an impending deal with recollection of past deals in Washington that came close but fell through.

Steering clear of specifics, the Office of Management and Budget director said the Obama administration’s top priorities are job creation and “ending the sequester,” leaving deficit reduction as a longer-term goal. “The sequester was supposed to be a deterrent, but Republicans and Democrats now believe that deep, across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending are not the way to go,” she said, lamenting recent cuts in National Institutes of Health grants, education, Head Start and military training.

As the grandchild of Greek immigrants, she highlighted President Obama’s goal of better integrating immigrants into the economy. “By the second generation, we’re taught that you can be anything, including being CEO,” she said.

Asked to name the lessons from the October government shutdown, Burwell said, “a positive is that people realized that the government does important things,” including NIH medical trials, taking care of the families of troops, and the Small Business Administration’s $1 billion a month in loans and guarantees. “Holding the government hostage to an issue is no way to run a railroad. There has to be compromise.”

To the audience of mostly women, Burwell said she sets a high bar in that “there is not a night when I’m not home for dinner with the children, but I work a lot after dinner and in the early morning.” The secret, she said, is her “great husband,” who is an attorney but stays home with their two young children, as well as “a terrific team at OMB.”

Addressing her past experience leading the WalMart Foundation and as a top officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she highlighted WalMart’s efforts to boost women-owned businesses and stock products produced by women. And she described the Gates approach to philanthropy as determining at the outset “what problem you’re trying to solve, what is the solution, and what could I be good at” to make progress.

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