Senate confirmation in doubt for Neera Tanden, Joe Biden's pick for budget director

Some liberals on Capitol Hill were not enthusiastic supporters of Tanden — and even before Biden took office, some of them saw her nomination fight as a distraction

The New York Times February 26, 2021 08:35:22 IST
Senate confirmation in doubt for Neera Tanden, Joe Biden's pick for budget director

Neera Tanden testifies at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month. By Anna Moneymaker © 2021 The New York Times

Washington: President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget continued to face Senate opposition Thursday, narrowing her chances of confirmation and sending White House officials on a frantic search for at least one Republican vote to salvage her nomination.

The nominee, Neera Tanden, a longtime Democratic political and policy aide who runs the liberal Centre for American Progress think tank, has drawn opposition from Republicans and at least one Senate Democrat over a history of combative Twitter posts that criticised lawmakers in often colorful terms. Her struggles have exposed an early miscalculation by Biden’s team, particularly by the man who championed her for the position, Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff.

Klain and other administration officials appear to have misjudged the salience of what one senator called “mean” social media posts after four years of Twitter screeds by former President Donald Trump, which Republican lawmakers often let pass without comment.

Tanden apologised for her posts in two confirmation hearings — “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry for any hurt they’ve caused,” she said — but several Republican lawmakers, along with a key Democrat, nevertheless cited them in opposing her.

Those objections appear to have caught the White House off guard, suggesting officials, including Klain, did not think they needed to spend time helping to pave the way for Tanden’s confirmation, which they thought would be relatively easy.

That lack of preparation became clear last week when Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat, said he would oppose Tanden’s confirmation given her past public comments.

Biden’s aides also did not run Tanden’s potential nomination past a senator she has clashed with in the past, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who chairs the Budget Committee. Sanders, who asked Tanden to explain her “vicious attacks” during one of her two confirmation hearings, said on Thursday that he would not commit to backing her.

“Right now, I think she doesn’t have the votes,” Sanders told reporters.

White House officials have continued to stick by Tanden, even as several potentially supportive Republicans have come out against her nomination. That has left her fate potentially in the hands of Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who remains publicly undecided. At least one moderate Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, has also not publicly committed to supporting Tanden.

Given that the Senate is evenly split and Manchin is opposed, Tanden would need to gain at least one Republican vote to win confirmation, with Vice-President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.

Among those continuing to push for her confirmation is Klain, who said on MSNBC on Wednesday evening that the administration was fighting for Tanden and that she would get a White House job even if her nomination failed. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday that “the president nominated Neera Tanden because she is qualified, because she is experienced, because she has a record of working with people who agree and disagree with her.”

“We’re continuing to fight for her confirmation,” she said.

Biden raised eyebrows in some policy circles when he nominated Tanden last year, while two Senate seats in Georgia — and Senate control — were still undecided. Once Democrats won those elections, many in the administration saw Tanden as a strong pick to serve as budget director, both because of her wide experience in a range of policy areas and because of her personal story of being raised by an immigrant single mother who relied on food stamps and other government support at times in Tanden’s childhood.

Klain had pushed hard for the selection of Tanden, a longtime friend, even while some other aides worried that picking her would create a distraction and require the White House to expend political capital best used to pass the $1.9 trillion economic aid package that is Biden’s first major legislative push.

White House officials believed the back-of-the-envelope math looked good for Tanden’s confirmation, even accounting for the concerns about her being seen as partisan and belligerent in social media posts — thousands of which she deleted after Biden’s victory in November.

The White House did not have any promised Republican votes, but officials were hearing encouraging rumblings. Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, had told mutual contacts he was inclined to give the president his pick, according to two people involved in the process.

Democrats close to the administration said Tanden had been expecting a level of Republican support similar to Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, who was confirmed with six Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in backing him. She won an endorsement this month from the US Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business group.

But by Thursday afternoon, the fight to confirm Tanden had come down to whether Biden’s team could scrounge up a single Republican to support her nomination. After Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would not vote to confirm Tanden, only one option was left on the table: Murkowski. Even Romney said he could not support a nominee “who has issued a thousand mean tweets.”

Some Democrats say the focus on her social media posts could be cover for conservatives who oppose Tanden on ideological grounds. One Democratic aide noted that the criticism of Tanden’s posts offered an easy rebuke given Biden’s focus on comity and unity, and that it overshadowed thornier disagreements over her work at the Centre for American Progress. Several conservative groups, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, have opposed Tanden’s confirmation on policy grounds.

Murkowski could still vote to confirm Tanden; but for now, the senator is staying mum. Early Thursday afternoon, a small group of reporters trailed Murkowski across the Senate side of the Capitol for more than an hour without getting an answer.

On Wednesday, Murkowski told reporters, “It looks like I’ve got more time to be thinking about things,” citing a decision by Democrats to delay two committee hearings that would have advanced Tanden’s nomination. When shown a copy of a tweet that Tanden had posted in 2017 disparaging Murkowski, the senator added that she “was trying to look at competence, but apparently I’m going to have to do more looking into what she thinks about me.”

The Biden team had expected a much smoother path to confirmation.

Of the Republicans who had generally been helpful to the Biden administration, only Senator Susan Collins of Maine was a locked-in “no” vote for Tanden, according to one official involved in the process.

With no overarching concerns over Tanden’s nomination, the White House focused its time and energy instead on preparing two appointees it had assessed to be its most vulnerable Cabinet members: Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Biden’s nominee for interior secretary; and Xavier Becerra, his nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services.

But Republican opposition to Tanden blossomed after Manchin said he would not support her. Some White House officials viewed those “no” votes as an opportunistic pile-on intended to kill her chances.

Allies of Biden involved in the process said Klain — a veteran of political fights, including the 2000 presidential recount in Florida — knew Tanden’s nomination would be somewhat contentious. But he and others did not expect her tweets to make her more contentious than other potential nominees.

Progressives like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example, staged protests over the possibility of Bruce Reed, Biden’s former chief of staff, leading the budget department before the nomination went to Tanden. White House officials assumed nominees for other posts would face more opposition from Republicans.

Still, some liberals on Capitol Hill were not enthusiastic supporters of Tanden — and even before Biden took office, some of them saw her nomination fight as a distraction from the push for the stimulus bill. That includes Sanders, who was asked about Tanden’s chances in an early January interview with The New York Times.

“Let me not worry about Neera right now,” he said.

Annie Karni, Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane c.2021 The New York Times Company

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