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A fresh series of economic deadlines would await Lew at the Treasury Department. The first will be the need, around the end of February, to raise the $16.4 trillion federal borrowing limit to avert a first-ever default by the government. That deadline will likely trigger a confrontation with congressional Republicans over spending cuts.
At the beginning of March, $110 billion in cuts to military and domestic programs will automatically kick in if no congressional budget deal has been reached by then. Congress and the administration postponed that issue in the fiscal cliff agreement that received final congressional passage on New Year's Day.
The third pressing deadline will occur March 27. That's when a congressional resolution that's keeping the government operating without a budget will expire. Without a new bill, the government would shut down.
Lew's immersion in the minutiae of federal budgets contrasts with the experience of most previous Treasury secretaries. Many arrived from high-level posts on Wall Street, where they presided over securities trading and investment banking. Obama's choice of Lew is seen as a signal of the president's determination to control record-breaking budget deficits during his second term.
"I think Wall Street would have preferred someone with more financial market specialization, but Lew is being brought in because he knows the budget," said David Wyss, a former chief economist at Standard & Poor's. "Clearly, Obama has decided that his priority in a second term will be the budget."
Lew's nomination would also signal Obama's intent to keep Treasury close to the White House sphere as Obama engages with Congress on fiscal issues and as the administration continues to implement key aspects of the financial regulation overhaul that Geithner helped shepherd into law in 2010.
Lew's nomination would also have a domino effect at the White House, creating a vacancy for his chief of staff post that could be filled internally.