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POLITICS: PennAve

Sylvia Mathews Burwell: Obama's behind-the-scenes budget warrior

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,OMB,Republican Party,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Jeff Sessions,Budgets and Deficits,Jack Lew,Government Shutdown,Spending,Tom Carper

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama's budget director, is at ground zero of the government shutdown showdown, but you wouldn't know it from the headlines.

During previous budget standoffs with Republicans, Office of Management and Budget directors would be front and center, publicly pushing the administration’s case. Jack Lew, who served 2 years in the post before becoming Obama’s chief of staff and then Treasury Secretary, was a familiar face on the talk shows and at White House press briefings.

Burwell, a 47-year-old West Virginia native known for her modesty, is taking a far more behind-the-scenes approach. Her most public contribution to the government funding debate came in the form of a wonky memo on Sept. 30 directing federal agencies to execute plans for “an orderly shutdown.”

Burwell, though, isn’t new to Washington’s budget battles. Although just five months into her tenure at OMB, she has long been a Democratic stalwart and fiscal policy veteran.

She interned for Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., while a student at Harvard, where she earned a spot as a Rhodes scholar. She went on to work for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis before pitching in on then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's successful White House bid in 1992.

In the Clinton administration, she rose through the ranks, serving in a number of key posts: staff director of the National Economic Council, White House deputy chief of staff, chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and deputy director of the OMB under Lew.

When Obama nominated her to head OMB earlier this year, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., didn't know her and called his friend Erskine Bowles, Clinton's longtime chief of staff, to get his read.

"[Bowles] said, 'Let me put it to you this way: I know people who are as smart as Sylvia is. I know people who are as hard-working as Sylvia is. I've known people who are able to get people to work together as well as Sylvia does. But I've never known one person who does all those things as well,'" Carper told the Washington Examiner.

There's a reason Carper needed a Burwell primer. After Clinton left office, Burwell didn't stay in Washington to climb the political ladder. Instead, she moved to Seattle to work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and later continued to work on the philanthropic side of the corporate world at the Walmart Foundation.

Along the way, she met and married her husband, a lawyer and Pacific Northwest outdoorsman who hiked Mount Rainier for fun, and had two children. A high school women's basketball star and a rower at Oxford, Burwell is up for any challenge.

She also hasn’t shied away from accepting a tough job as Obama’s budget chief, with conservatives dead set on defunding Obamacare and tightening the nation’s belt. But critics question if she will emerge as a strong negotiator with Hill Republicans.

At a breakfast hosted by the Wall Street Journal in early August, she admitted that divisions among congressional Republicans make her job harder.

“Certainly it's much easier to think about negotiating and having deals when there is a singular represented point of view,” she said.

Republicans have concentrated their fire on her traditionally liberal fiscal policies. Even though Burwell easily sailed through her confirmation hearings, there were several heated moments.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who served as OMB director during the Bush administration, pressed Burwell on whether she would meet yearly budget deadlines after her predecessors had missed 12 of the last 19. Burwell said only that she would do “everything in my power” to finish them on time.

Burwell says one of her proudest moments during the Clinton administration was when the Republican-controlled Congress, working with the president, passed a balanced budget.

Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., asked her if Obama would submit a balanced budget in the near future.

Burwell stammered through her answer. “If the economy takes off and does an incredible job this year,” she began.

Sessions interrupted her, saying he didn't expect it because the president had “dismissed the value of the idea.”

Democrats brush aside the criticism and say Burwell will be a forceful advocate for fixing the nation’s fiscal woes.

Burwell is only the second woman to serve as OMB director, following Alice Rivlin, and her accomplishments have some Democrats suggesting she could run for Senate in West Virginia.

When asked about her interest in higher office, Carper, a West Virginia native himself, sidestepped the question.

“She's got her hands full right now,” he said. “We need to make sure she can do the best job she can with the job she's in.”

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