Obama Chief of Staff Misleads on How Budget Process Works in Senate

By Matt Cover | February 13, 2012 | 1:54 PM EST

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew gave a false and misleading account of why Senate Democratic leaders have failed to pass a budget in the past 1,019 days, saying it took “60 votes” to pass a budget.

“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,” Lew said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union program.

“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,” he said.

Lew made a similar claim on NBC’s Meet the Press program the same day, telling host David Gregory that the Senate could not pass a budget because of the 60-vote requirement.

“Well, you know, one of the things about the United States Senate that I think the American people have realized is that it takes 60 -- not 50 -- votes to pass something,” said Lew.  “And there has been Republican opposition to anything that Senate Democrats have tried to do,” Lew said when asked about the failure of the Senate to pass a budget.

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Lew’s statements are false. Only a simple majority is required to pass a budget in the Senate due to the reconciliation process. You do not need 50 votes to pass a budget, just a simple majority of the senators when the vote is cast.

Sen. Harry Reid (AP Photo)

That process, proscribed in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, provides that Congress can exempt a budget from a Senate filibuster – the 60-vote requirement – by adding language to a budget resolution triggering reconciliation. That means senators can debate a budget bill for up to 20 hours but then must hold a vote on the legislation.

Lew, the former head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, misled the public when he claimed that Senate Democrats have not passed a budget in 1,019 days because Republicans have not let them.

In fact, Senate Democrats have not passed a budget because they do not want to pass one, as Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Feb. 3.

“We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year — it's done, we don't need to do it,” Reid told reporters at the Capitol that day.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said in response to Lew’s comments that by refusing to pass a budget, Senate Democrats had “forfeited” their ability to lead the Senate.

“By refusing to lay out a budget plan for public examination the Democrat Senate has forfeited the high privilege to lead this chamber,” Sessions said in a statement on Sunday.

Copies of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2013 federal budget arrive at the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Under the 1974 budget law, reconciliation actually prevents the Senate from filibustering the budget, limiting debate on a budget resolution to 20 hours of debate, effectively circumventing the 60-vote requirement to end debate.

“[D]ebate in the Senate on any reconciliation measure is limited to 20 hours,” a 2008 Congressional Research Service report on budget reconciliation states.

In other words, a Senate filibuster prevents the Senate from ending debate on a bill. In order to end debate, the Senate must vote on a “motion to proceed,” which must receive 60 votes to pass. If the motion to proceed does not garner 60 votes, it fails and debate cannot stop. If a bill does not survive a filibuster it is considered to have been defeated.

The reconciliation process prevents this from happening by limiting debate to 20 hours. Typically, debate in the Senate is technically unlimited, ending only when the Senate votes on a motion to proceed. By limiting debate to 20 hours, reconciliation stops a filibuster from happening.

Because budget reconciliation prevents a filibuster from happening, Lew’s statement is misleading because Republican filibusters cannot be blamed for the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget.