WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as director of the White House budget office, adding a key player to this summer's looming battle over raising the debt limit.
The chamber easily approved her nomination Wednesday, voting 96-0 to install the one-time Clinton administration aide as just the second woman to run the Office of Management and Budget.
It's a job that will give her a pivotal role in negotiations with congressional Republicans over raising the borrowing cap as well as overseeing the government's $3.7 trillion budget and managing the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
"Her experience will be especially important as we continue our efforts to replace the indiscriminate budget cuts that are already starting to cost jobs, hurt families and inconvenience Americans," President Barack Obama said in a statement praising the Senate vote.
Burwell replaces Jeffrey Zients, who has been acting director of OMB since January 2012.
She will be returning to familiar territory, having served as deputy OMB director near the end of the Clinton administration -- a time, like today, when government was under divided control and the budget was a major issue. In his statement, Obama said she had been "part of an OMB team that presided over three budget surpluses in a row." A former Rhodes Scholar, she also was President Bill Clinton's deputy chief of staff as well as chief of staff to his Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin.
Burwell has worked in philanthropy since leaving Washington, running the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before heading up the Wal-Mart Foundation. That experience in deciding how to dole out limited funds to anti-malarial programs and other public health initiatives taught her to say "no" to those long on good intentions and short on funding, she told lawmakers -- a skill that will be useful in budget negotiations.
"You can imagine the many great things that I see every day that people want to fund," Burwell told the Senate Budget Committee at her confirmation hearing earlier this month. "Most of my days are filled with 'no' -- there are many more 'nos' than 'yeses,' actually, when one works in philanthropy. And so that is an experience that I have on a daily basis."
She will begin work at OMB just as fiscal issues are reappearing on lawmakers' agendas after a brief lull. Forced furloughs of air traffic controllers causing airline delays around the country are refocusing Congress's attention on the automatic budget cuts that took effect last month.
In addition, the latest debt-ceiling increase expires May 19, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says that raising the debt limit again will have to be accompanied by equivalent spending cuts. Lawmakers can probably stave off having to lift the ceiling until August, when Congress is scheduled to recess for about a month, because the Treasury Department can use accounting maneuvers to avoid breaching the cap.
Another round of sequestration begins in less than six months. That will cut an additional $109 billion out of the federal budget, half from defense. The government's annual budget process, meanwhile, is off to a slow start after the administration delayed releasing its 2014 plan for two months.
Burwell, the daughter of West Virginia optometrist, is the first woman to head the agency since Alice Rivlin was Clinton's budget director in the mid-1990s.
She is one of several women President Obama named to cabinet-level positions this year after some women's groups criticized the administration for selecting men to lead the State, Treasury and Defense departments. Obama has also named Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Sally Jewell to run the Interior Department; Jewell was confirmed on April 10.