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President Obama will nominate his chief of staff as the next treasury secretary later today. Jack Lew is a budget expert who could hit the ground running, as the Treasury tries to cope with a looming debt ceiling, automatic spending cuts and the ongoing push for long-term deficit reduction. Lew would be the latest nominee for a high-profile Cabinet post, as the president prepares for a second term.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: At a White House briefing yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney recapped what he called Jack Lew's stellar record, including a stint as President Clinton's budget director the last time the federal government ran a budget surplus.
JAY CARNEY: He is that rare person in Washington who has been here for years, who has done some very hard things and brokered some serious bipartisan agreements, and done it in a way that has earned the admiration of almost everybody he's worked with.
HORSLEY: Lew's West Wing office is decorated with WPA paintings of New York, illustrating his devotion both to his hometown and to the New Deal programs that grew out of the Great Depression.
As a boy, Lew campaigned for Eugene McCarthy. As a teenager, he got a job with another liberal icon: Bella Abzug. And as a young man, he went to work for Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, an experience Mr. Obama cited when he tapped Lew for the White House chief of staff's job in 2011.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ever since he began his career in public service as a top aide to Speaker Tip O'Neill, Jack has fought for an America where hard work and responsibility pay off, a place where everybody gets a fair shot.
HORSLEY: But if Lew shares Mr. Obama's commitment to the social safety net, he also shares his pragmatism about what's required to preserve it. Lew watched O'Neill and former President Ronald Reagan negotiate a rescue for Social Security that raised both taxes and the eligibility age.
Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg says that's the kind of deal that has eluded this president and Congress.
JUDD GREGG: Tip O'Neill, Ronald Reagan showed that you can substantively adjust your entitlement programs to make them more solvent so they're survivable. And that's the exact situation we're confronting with Medicare, Medicaid and - to a lesser degree - Social Security. It's going to require that these programs not be adjusted in a way that radically affects the beneficiaries, but adjusted in a way that delivers benefits in an affordable way and an effective way.
HORSLEY: As a top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Gregg worked extensively with Lew. He says he has great respect for the former budget director, despite their philosophical differences.
GREGG: He was easy to work with relative to the nuts and bolts of governing, and we had a pretty good working relationship at that level. In negotiating, I'm sure he's very tough. There's no question he's a tough negotiator.
HORSLEY: Too tough for some of today's Congressional Republicans.
An oversized photo in Lew's office shows him during the spring budget talks of 2011, when GOP lawmakers pushed for tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for keeping the lights in the government on. They ultimately cut a deal they thought would reduce spending by $38 billion. But when the Congressional Budget Office studied the details, the short-term savings amounted to less than 1 percent of that.
The outfoxed Republicans later urged the White House to send a different negotiator, complaining that Lew couldn't get to yes at the bargaining table. Despite that GOP grousing, former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle insists Lew is no ideologue.
TOM DASCHLE: I don't know that you could have a better negotiator than Jack. He's tough. And because he doesn't cave, I suppose there are those who wish they'd somebody who did. But that isn't what Jack Lew does.
HORSLEY: Republican Judd Gregg says he expects an intense confirmation process, as Senators air their differences over economic policy. But he says it's hard to argue with Lew's qualifications for the Treasury job.
The White House agrees. The president is eager to have a new secretary in place, in time for what's shaping up as a tumultuous season of budget battles.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: During this season, the president also has other Cabinet jobs to fill. The secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, says she's leaving. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have already said the same.
MONTAGNE: Hilda Solis was the first Latina to hold a senior Cabinet position. She says she's going home to begin a new future, which is expected to include running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
INSKEEP: She leaves Washington with the praise of labor unions for pushing to enforce wage laws and job safety rules.
MONTAGNE: Which didn't make her popular with business groups, who have criticized her as uncooperative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.