The Memo: Biden faces first major setback as Tanden teeters
Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget looks more imperiled by the day, with a growing expectation that she could drop out as soon as Friday.
The White House remains publicly loyal to Tanden, insisting they are not wavering from their desire to see her confirmed by the Senate. But if the plug gets pulled in the end, it will deal President Biden his first significant setback since taking office.
There was already some angst in Democratic circles about the decision to nominate Tanden.
Her willingness to go after Republicans in strong terms on Twitter was always going to be a problem, the skeptics say, especially with the Senate split 50-50. Tanden has her fair share of enemies on the left as well. She is synonymous with the party’s Clintonite center-left and has at times been eager to pick fights online with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has not said how he would vote on her nomination. He spoke with Tanden earlier this week to tell her that her hearing before his committee was being postponed.
Another hearing, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has also been put on hold. In the highly choreographed nomination dance, such delays often sound the death knell for a controversial nominee.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in a Wednesday evening interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid that the administration was “fighting our guts out” to get Tanden confirmed. But he also said that, if that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, another job would be found “that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.”
Klain is seen as the strongest internal advocate for Tanden, the long-time head of the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank. But even though the two are close, Klain’s statement about finding her another job was tantamount to acknowledging that her chances of confirmation are dimming.
At a Thursday media briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “nominated Neera Tanden because she is qualified, because she is experienced, because she has a record of working with people who agree with her and disagree with her — and she has decades of experience. Plus, she has lived experience of her own.”
The White House prefers to emphasize Tanden’s long experience over her zest for combative tweets.
Republicans have contended that her willingness to get into online fights cuts against Biden’s stated desire for civility. Tanden once referred to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Voldemort” and said that vampires “have more heart than Ted Cruz,” the Republican senator from Texas.
Tanden has deleted many of her more confrontational tweets, and has apologized for them. Her supporters inside and outside the administration note that former President Trump has never apologized for his enormous number of tweets leveling insults at opponents. That being so, they roll their eyes at Republicans who now fret about Tanden’s tone.
Still, that alone doesn’t solve the problems in getting her confirmed.
“Clearly the tweets have hurt her. I get the point of, ‘Oh, Republican senators finally understand how to read tweets?’ That is a legitimate criticism and one can point out the hypocrisy and whatabout-ism,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “But it is still a problem.”
Among segments of the left, at least, there is no great desire to provide Tanden with cover.
“It’s not that she was mean to Bernie Sanders, it is that she opposes what he stands for,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist.
Tasini added, though, that the left shouldn’t celebrate Tanden losing out because she is seen as insufficiently bipartisan.
“I don’t give a shit about people’s tweets and whether she said angry things. But the notion that she would not win confirmation because Joe Manchin is pining for bipartisanship is not something progressives should be happy about,” he said, referring to the Democratic senator from West Virginia. “A desire for quote-unquote bipartisanship is death for progressive policy.”
On Thursday, some liberal voices were arguing that losing one confirmation battle would hardly be ruinous.
“Every White House loses at least one Cabinet nominee to the confirmation process. If Biden loses one, it is a sign of normalcy, not crisis, especially with only 50 votes in the Senate,” Matthew Miller, an MSNBC analyst and former Justice Department spokesman, tweeted.
Certainly the Biden administration can take heart from the fact that the prospects appear to be edging up for other nominees who faced some initial resistance. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra are the two most obvious examples, at the Interior Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. Both are still awaiting confirmation.
The administration already has some solid successes. Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed as Homeland Security secretary earlier this month. Mayorkas, born in Cuba, is both the first Latino and the first immigrant to head the department.
It’s true that there aren’t exactly masses of voters waiting with bated breath for news of Tanden’s nomination fate.
But in Washington at least, a defeat for her — and the notion that the White House has suffered its first self-inflicted wound — will resonate loudly.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.