Hey Jack, It Only Takes a Simple Majority to Pass a Budget in the Senate

February 14th, 2012 by Lee Eldridge

This weekend, Jack Lew made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to discuss the President’s budget. If you don’t know who Jack Lew is, he was the White House budget director under both President Clinton and President Obama, and now serves as Obama’s Chief of Staff.  This is the exchange that took place on CNN (copied from Politifact):

On the Feb. 12, 2012, edition of CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, the host said to Lew, “I want to read for our viewers something (from) Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate, who said, we do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year. It’s done. We don’t need to do it, talking about last year’s two-year agreement and saying that, you know, … it’s already done.”

Lew responded, “Well, let’s be clear. What Sen. Reid is talking about is a fairly narrow point. In order for the Senate to do its annual work on appropriation bills, they need to pass a certain piece of legislation which sets a limit. They did that last year. That’s what he’s talking about. He’s not saying that they shouldn’t pass a budget. 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. So unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed. And I think he was reflecting the reality that that could be a challenge.”

Here’s the exchange from “Meet the Press” (this transcription comes from Real Clear Politics):

David Gregory, moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC: Here’s a stat that a lot of people may not know but is pretty striking: The number of days since Senate Democrats passed a budget is 1,019. Can you just explain as a former Budget Director, how do you fund the government when there’s no budget?

Jack Lew, Obama’s Chief of Staff: Well, one of the things about the United States Senate that I think the American people realized is that it takes 60, not 50 votes to pass something. And there has been Republican opposition to anything that Senate Democrats have tried to do. So it is a challenge in the United States Senate to pass legislation when there’s not that willingness to work together.

Congress didn’t do a great job last year. It drove right to the edge of the cliff on occasion after occasion. I actually think it’s unfair to blame the United States Senate for that. A lot of that was because of the extreme conservative approach taken by House Republicans.

Gregory: Your party controls the Senate, does it not?

Lew: Yeah, but the positions that ended up tying the Congress in knots came out of the House, came out of the Tea Party wing in the House.

I’m not sure if I’m more shocked by Lew’s statement, or the fact that Gregory didn’t call him on it. It only takes a simple majority to pass a budget in the Senate. It can not be filibustered by the minority party.

From Politifact who gave his statement a “False”:

On the specific question he was asked — about the congressional budget resolution — Lew said you need 60 votes to pass it. That’s flatly wrong.

From the Washington Post who awarded Lew with “Four Pinocchios”:

We might be tempted to think Lew misspoke, except that he said virtually the same thing, on two different shows, when he was specifically asked about the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget resolution. He even prefaced his comment on CNN by citing the “need to be honest.”

He could have tried to argue, as some Democrats do, that the debt-ceiling deal last year in effect was a budget resolution. Or he could have spoken more broadly about gridlock in the Senate, after acknowledging a traditional budget resolution had not been passed. Instead, the former budget director twice choose to use highly misleading language that blamed Republicans for the failure of the Democratic leadership.

We wavered between three and four Pinocchios, in part because the budget resolution is only a blueprint, not a law, but ultimately decided a two-time budget director really should know better.

It’s been a personal pet peeve of mine that the Democrats in the Senate have failed to present a budget in more than 1,000 days. It’s also difficult to believe that as the budget director under both Clinton and Obama, that Lew didn’t know exactly what he was saying. The problem is that you reach way more people on CNN and NBC with the lie than you ever will with organizations like PolitiFact and the Washington Post calling him on it.

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