Obama chief of staff: 'Congress needs to get its work done'

Chris Usher/AP

In a line the Obama administration has made clear will be one of its campaign slogans, new White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew on Sunday signaled how the White House will play both the extension of the payroll tax cut and the president’s fiscal 2013 budget request, to be released on Monday.

“Congress needs to get its work done,” Lew said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

Lew made the news show rounds Sunday for the first time as Chief of Staff, a position he assumed this month after heading up the Office of Management and Budget for a little over a year and a half. And he weighed in on a variety of issues.

Early leaks indicate the president’s budget will emphasize infrastructure spending and promise the creation of some 2 million jobs while cutting $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade.

Lew dismissed the suggestion that the infrastructure spending included looked like another stimulus plan. “I think most Americans understand that a crumbling infrastructure is not the way to build an economy that can last,” Lew said.

Lew repeatedly weighed in on the payroll tax fight in his TV appearances Sunday, a tax provision scheduled to expire at the end of the month. A congressional conference committee is currently trying to hash out the details of an agreement on a year-long extension, but has made little progress. Lew emphasized the importance of the extension, an issue the White House deftly handled in December as Republicans stumbled into a position that opposed a tax cut for the middle class.

“There’s not enough economic growth, but we're heading in the right direction,” Lew said on Fox News Sunday. “The question is, is Washington going to be part of the solution or part of the problem? That’s why it’s so important for Congress to pass the payroll tax cut extension this month, that's why it’s so important that we not have the kind of dysfunction that last year became part of the uncertainty that held back the economy.”

Lew also addressed the imbroglio provoked by the Obama administration’s decision last week to require employers to pay for health insurance plans that offer free birth control even if they disagree with it on religious grounds. Many have cast the move as an overreach that violates religious liberty.

“The president had two important goals here,” Lew said on ABC’s This Week. “One is to guarantee that every woman has a right to all forms of preventive health care, including contraception, secondly, that we do it in a way that respects the legitimate religious differences and the religious liberties that are so important in our country.”

Obama on Friday softened the rule, shifting the cost to health insurance companies rather than religious institutions, after loud backlash from elements of the Catholic Church. Lew said the new rule would “reconcile those two very important values.”

President Obama’s budget was quickly dismissed last year as an unrealistic political press release -- one that even Democrats voted against in the Senate, where it failed 0-97 -- and the White House hinted then that it was only trying to put out a marker before House Republicans put out their own budget. The budget battles that have dominated Congress since then have made deficit reduction a goal the president will have to adhere to -- or at least appear to prioritize. 

State of the Union host Candy Crowley suggested that the budget would be “attacked as a political document” that would simply lay the groundwork for Obama to say the GOP blocked job creation, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said recently that the Senate didn’t need to pass a budget.

Lew countered that Reid was simply referring to the setting of caps on annual appropriations, which was already accomplished by the Budget Control Act passed in August 2011. “He’s not saying that they shouldn’t pass a budget,” Lew said.

“Unless Republicans in the House are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate,” Lew added, “Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed…but let’s be clear. There’s time and the desire to work together.”

Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.

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