Senate committee approves Lew for US Treasury chief

The US Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday approved President Barack Obama's nominee Jack Lew to be the new Treasury secretary, replacing Timothy Geithner who stepped down last month.

Senators voted 19-5 in favor of Lew, with several Republicans joining with the majority Democrats. The committee approval paves the way for a full Senate vote as early as Wednesday.

With Republicans embroiled in a showdown with the White House over the country's massive debt, the Lew confirmation process ran the risk of being caught up in debate over the looming budget cuts, which could ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs if Congress fails to act.

But the nomination of Lew, a former Citigroup executive who most recently served as Obama's chief of staff and participated in the budget negotiations of 2011, appears to have ducked such turmoil.

The committee's ranking Republican Orrin Hatch ended up voting for him despite "serious reservations."

"I believe the president is owed a fair amount of deference in choosing people to work in his administration and, though I would have chosen a different person for this particular post, I intend to defer to President Obama with regard to the Lew nomination," Hatch said.

Hatch sought clarification from Lew on more than 60 questions ahead of the vote, including his positions on China's currency and whether the White House ought to engage in serious reform of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

"I strongly disagree with Mr Lew on some significant policy issues -- most notably, his decision to backtrack from the administration's previous position on the need for entitlement reform and his belief in the need for higher taxes," Hatch said in a statement.

Lew, 57, served twice as budget director, the first time in the 1990s under president Bill Clinton. As Obama's right hand man at the White House, Lew had a central role in negotiations that resulted in the massive automatic spending cuts due by law to go into effect on Friday.

The committee confirmation vote for Lew was considerably more sedate than the heated debate during the Senate Armed Services Committee vote earlier this month for Chuck Hagel, whom the president nominated to head the Pentagon.

Hagel faces a full Senate vote as early as Tuesday.

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