Obama Taps Burwell for OMB; New Chiefs for EPA, DOE

CNBC.com with Wires
Sylvia Matthews Burwell
Source: Walmart.com

President Barack Obama on Monday selected Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the head of the Wal-Mart Foundation, as his budget director in the midst of a partisan battle over government spending.

He also nominated air quality expert Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to head the Department of Energy.

Obama announced his selections at the White House. He noted that Burwell comes on as the government grapples with $85 billion in automatic cuts.

Burwell, 47, a veteran of Bill Clinton's White House, has been president of the Walmart Foundation for the past year at the corporation's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. The charity organization in 2011 gave out nearly $1 billion in corporate contributions to projects around the world such as fighting hunger and empowering women.

Burwell, who is originally from West Virginia, would replace Jeffrey Zients, who has been serving as acting director at the White House Office of Management and Budget, known by the acronym OMB.

The White House said Burwell had a proven record as a problem solver and consensus builder.

"Sylvia knows her way around a budget," Obama said. "But as granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up. Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth, and that is a strong growing middle class, to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them."

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he would "fairly and thoughtfully review" Obama's choice of Burwell. The panel, led by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, will oversee the nomination.

"The director must lead an effort to make government leaner and more efficient and must be committed to providing honest and accurate information on the dangerous financial condition of our country," Sessions told Reuters in a statement.

Mike Duke, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart, congratulated Burwell on her nomination, describing her as "a strong leader who both masters the details and has a clear vision for making big thing happen."

The move will reunite her with another Clinton White House veteran, Jack Lew, who was Clinton's OMB director for a time and was recently confirmed as Obama's Treasury secretary.

Burwell will take the office that carries out the administration's spending policies and prepares an annual budget. That office will inevitably be caught up in the ongoing budget battle between Democrats and Republicans as lawmakers seek ways to reduce annual $1 trillion federal budgets.

She brings a certain outsider status to Obama's inner circle and may offer a fresh perspective from the business world far away from Washington.

Burwell would also bring gender diversity to the top echelons of the Obama White House after the president drew fire from critics for picking men for many top jobs.

Burwell served as deputy OMB director during part of Clinton's 1990s presidency. She was also deputy White House chief of staff and served as chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

After her work in the Clinton administration, Burwell was president of the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She led the foundation's grant and advocacy efforts aimed at lifting the world's poorest people out of hunger and extreme poverty.

McCarthy, currently the assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, would replace Lisa Jackson, who has stepped down as EPA chief.

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, is director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

He would replace Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who is stepping down.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.