WASHINGTON -- Treasury secretary nominee Jacob J. Lew told senators Wednesday that his top priority was to boost the economic recovery while also grappling with the nation's growing debt.
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Lew warned that automatic government spending cuts coming March 1 would damage the recovery. And he called for Democrats and Republicans to work together to improve the economy, citing his history of working across party lines.
"In recent years, some have argued that Washington is irrevocably broken, that our government cannot tackle the nation’s most serious problems, that bipartisanship is a thing of the past. I disagree," Lew said in his prepared remarks.
"The truth is, we all share the same goals. We want an economy that is expanding," he said.
President Obama nominated Lew, 57, to replace Timothy F. Geithner, who stepped down as Treasury secretary last month. Lew had been Obama's chief of staff, and also served as head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama and Clinton administrations.
As the budget director for two Democratic presidents, Lew negotiated spending deals with Republican majorities in Congress. Between his government stints, Lew worked in the private sector. He was president of New York University and worked from 2006 to 2009 at Citigroup.
Lew was managing director and chief operating officer at Citi Global Wealth Management from 2006 to 2008. He held the same position at Citi Alternative Investments in 2008-09.
Lew descibed his role at Citigroup as being "part of the senior management team trying to drive organizational change at one of our nation’s largest banks."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he would press Lew at the hearing on his time at Citigroup and was among several Republicans who planned tough questions.
"Some of the units’ activities included proprietary trading along with sales and marketing of risky investments," Hatch said.
"If you knew about the marketing and sales of those investments, it would be instructive for us to find out what you knew," he continued. "If you did not know much about them, then it would be instructive for us to find out why, and to determine exactly what your responsibilities were during your years at Citi when you were very well compensated, including times when Citigroup was being propped up by American taxpayers."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that Lew, if confirmed, would need to focus on three areas -- job creation, stabilizing the federal goverment's finances and simplifying the tax code.
"The state of the economy is still fragile," Baucus said. "Unemployment near 8% for the next two years is unacceptable."