“But we also need to be honest. 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. 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. And I think he was reflecting the reality of that that could be a challenge.”

--White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Feb. 12. 2012

Newly-named White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew was not only recently budget director for President Obama; he was also the budget director for former President Bill Clinton. So when he speaks about the budget process, you would think he speaks with authority.

That’s why his comment on CNN jumped out at us. He also said something similar on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when asked about the number of days since Senate Democrats passed a budget plan (1,019). Lew’s response: “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.”

Given that President Obama unveils his budget on Monday—and the congressional budget process is so complex—it seems like it is time for a refresher course. Let’s examine if Lew is being misleading here.

The Facts

The term “budget” is used rather loosely in Washington. The White House every year proposes a budget, but that document is at best a political statement and wish list, since none of those proposals will take effect unless Congress enacts them into law. The House and Senate every spring are supposed to pass a budget resolution, which also does not have the force of law but guides the amount of money available to the Appropriations Committees, in addition to setting parameters for tax and entitlement legislation.

The Appropriations Committees actually determine how much money each discretionary federal program will receive; that’s the source of real budget power.

But the congressional budget resolution can be important because of a process known as reconciliation. If language is included in the budget resolution that directs a Congressional committee to meet certain spending or tax targets, then the resulting bill cannot be subject to filibuster (ie, needing 60 votes to end debate) and can pass with only a majority vote. (For more information on the budget process, see this excellent primer by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

President George W. Bush used reconciliation to pass his tax cuts, and President Obama used reconciliation to pass amendments to the health care law. (Note: Republicans often say he used to reconciliation to pass health care, but technically, the health-care law was passed in the Senate with 60 votes, and then amendments were passed under reconciliation to placate House Democrats.) The Congressional Research Service also has a good primer on reconciliation.

The bottom line is that the budget resolution (i.e., the congressional “budget”) is a useful tool for passing laws and spending money, but it is not the only tool. While Senate Democrats did not pass a budget resolution for the 2011 fiscal year, Republicans also failed to pass budget resolutions that reconciled differences between the House and Senate in 1999, 2005 and 2007, when they controlled Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service. But money ultimately was still appropriated for government programs.

That said, Lew is completely wrong when he claims that 60 votes are needed to “pass a budget in the Senate.” As he well knows, a budget resolution is one of the few things that are not subject to a filibuster. In fact, that is one reason why a bill based on reconciliation instructions cannot be filibustered.

You don’t even need 50 votes, just a simple majority. Here are a few of the recent close votes for the budget resolution, as listed by CRS: 48-45 (2009 budget); 51-49 (2006); 51-50 (2004); 50-48 (2001). Senate Democrats may have reasons for failing to pass a budget plan—such as wanting to avoid casting politically inconvenient votes—but a GOP filibuster is not one of them.

Asked for an explanation of Lew’s remarks, a White House official said: “The Chief of Staff was clearly referencing the general gridlock in Congress that makes accomplishing even the most basic tasks nearly impossible given the Senate Republicans’ insistence on blocking an up or down vote on nearly every issue.”

The Pinocchio Test

We might be tempted to think Lew misspoke, except that he said virtually the same thing, on two different shows, when he was specifically asked about the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget resolution. He even prefaced his comment on CNN by citing the “need to be honest.”

He could have tried to argue, as some Democrats do, that the debt-ceiling deal last year in effect was a budget resolution. Or he could have spoken more broadly about gridlock in the Senate, after acknowledging a traditional budget resolution had not been passed. Instead, the former budget director twice choose to use highly misleading language that blamed Republicans for the failure of the Democratic leadership.

We wavered between three and four Pinocchios, in part because the budget resolution is only a blueprint, not a law, but ultimately decided a two-time budget director really should know better.

Four Pinocchios

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