By Rachelle Younglai and Anna Yukhananov
WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Senate Republicans on Wednesday offered encouraging words about President Barack Obama's Treasury nominee, Jack Lew, but withheld support, saying the former White House budget director's qualifications and views must still be scrutinized.
Lew met with four Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, which is in charge of vetting his nomination.
The lawmakers said they discussed the need to find common ground on government spending and revenues, and the imperative of reforming big government programs dear to Democrats: Social Security and Medicare.
Lew "acknowledged what I know, that Social Security is the 'easier' solution, ... but that health care is a huge problem and a huge challenge," Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia told reporters after meeting with Lew.
As Obama's chief of staff, Lew has been deeply involved with the fiscal battles that have consumed Congress and the White House over the past two years.
If confirmed by the Senate, Lew will assume the role of Treasury secretary as another set of fiscal deadlines loom, including about $100 billion in spending cuts due to take effect in March.
But at least one major issue would likely be off his plate for a brief time: a potential debt default by the U.S. government. House of Representative Republicans passed a bill on Wednesday to extend the government's borrowing authority until mid-May.
Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman separately said their conversations with Lew were constructive. Texas Senator John Cornyn said he appreciated Lew's willingness to listen to his concerns about the country's growing debt.
Senators did not address Lew's lack of experience in international economics and financial markets.
"The devil's in the details, and there's a lot more of Mr. Lew's record and qualifications that need to be fully examined," Hatch said in an emailed statement after his meeting.
Committee members are waiting for Lew's tax returns and other paperwork in order to start the full vetting process. No date has yet been set for a hearing on the nomination.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has served since the beginning of Obama's first term, leaves the administration on Friday. His deputy, Neal Wolin, will serve as acting secretary until the Senate approves a new economic chief.
In Lew, Obama picked a trusted confidante and a two-time White House budget director. But he also chose someone who contributed to the hostility between the White House and Republican lawmakers.
During a fight last year to raise the debt ceiling, Lew's unwavering negotiating position angered Republicans as well as some Democrats, who preferred dealing with Geithner.
Isakson dismissed those criticisms. Lew, he said, "was very approachable. I didn't get any sense of that at all in this meeting."
Lew could need as many as 60 votes to win confirmation in the Senate, where Democrats control the upper chamber 53-45.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have already endorsed him. But a number of Republicans and Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, have said they think Lew should not serve as Treasury secretary.
At the beginning of his meeting with Lew, Isakson asked him how his meetings in Congress were going.
"So far so good," Lew replied with a smile and slight shrug of his shoulders.
"But it's still early," Isakson said.