How the White House botched the Neera nominationFebruary 24, 2021
Just about everyone in Washington, D.C., could see that Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget was beleaguered from the beginning — everyone, that is, except the White House.
At the time her nomination was announced, Democrats didn’t even control the Senate and Tanden’s history of sharp-elbowed politics and highly personal Twitter attacks had made her enemies on the left and right. But Biden and his team, headed by White House chief of staff Ron Klain, felt strongly that they could sway Republicans to back her. When Democrats won the runoffs in Georgia, their gamble looked more prescient.
Today, the White House can’t even get all Democrats on board. And Mitch McConnell is urging the GOP to band together to take Tanden down.
Biden and his aides insist that Tanden’s prospects are not doomed. But her fate now hinges on Sen. Lisa Murkowski swooping in to save the nomination. Even if the independent-minded Alaska Republican were to do that, the saga would still mark one of the biggest missteps of Biden’s still-young presidency, one that raises questions about the White House’s political acumen and its ability to manage relations on the Hill. The president himself on Tuesday seemed to accept that the Tanden nom could end in defeat.
“We’re going to push,” Biden said on Tuesday. “We still think there’s a shot, a good shot.”
Tanden’s nomination became imperiled last Friday when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition, a development that took Democrats by surprise. But the seeds of her rocky reception on the Hill were planted with White House miscalculations weeks beforehand — among them, that moderate Senate Democrats would rally behind the president’s slate of nominees and that Republican resistance would soften.
“Around here the opposition is always looking for the person that they can put a fight up about. And she would be the obvious one to cull from the herd,” said one Senate Democrat, referring to the wall of GOP opposition Tanden faced from the beginning.
For a while, the White House felt Tanden would avoid her current fate. She atoned for her now infamous Twitter behavior and put forward her personal story of a hardscrabble life, living on food stamps and raised by a single mother. And allies like former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who consults frequently with the White House, predicted that both parties would get on board due to the historic nature of her nomination: Tanden would become the first South Asian woman to head up the agency. Inside the White House, endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — an ex-OMB chief himself — were pushed out in hopes that they would give Republicans cover to back her.
Elsewhere, there was a belief that the Trump years, in which the Senate confirmed Mick Mulvaney and Russ Vought as OMB directors after long careers in conservative politics, would make it difficult to oppose a nominee because of the tenor of her tweets.
“The truth is that she’s been critical of the left and the right. What the hell? I actually know her, I think she’s a good person,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I don’t think the fight’s over with. Not ‘til she’s either pulled or the vote is negative.”
But those bets weren’t supplemented by an aggressive lobbying effort on Tanden’s behalf. One senior Democratic Senate staffer complained that even early on in her confirmation fight, the White House was lackluster in its advocacy for her and tone-deaf to the chillier reception she was getting on the Hill. There were questions about how many champions she even had at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Who does she have? Ron Klain. That’s her constituency,” the staffer said.
A source close to the White House though countered that Biden personally had backed Tanden from the start and thought she was “making a strong case to Republicans and Democrats for their support.”
Still, several Democrats said Biden has no strong ties or loyalty to her. Tanden is a product of the Clinton world and is close to John Podesta, who she worked with at the Center for American Progress and who had advocated for her placement in the Biden administration. Democrats also argue that a scuttled Tanden nomination is not a terrible political outcome for Biden, as it gives Manchin and Republicans a chance to say they broke with Biden on something on one front while giving them cover to back his agenda elsewhere.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, felt little in the way of arm-twisting to get behind Tanden’s nomination. As of Monday, she had held 35 meetings with senators — though it was unclear with whom. Administration officials had sought early meetings with moderates like Manchin, but he didn’t speak with her before their meeting on Monday — after he’d already announced opposition to her nomination.
And there was open confusion among staff about whether she had a sherpa (she did) to help with her nomination and senators said that they had been unpersuaded by the notion that Tanden was uniquely qualified for the post.
”Doesn’t seem like she had much of a chance,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va). “There’s a part of me that says, why do you put people up for positions — and this isn’t just Biden that does this — where you know they have so much baggage that it’s going to be a difficult climb?”
Tanden has tried to remedy perceived shortcomings in recent days. Twenty four hours after the White House said she’d had those 35 meetings, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tanden had talked with 44 senators. Tanden had asked the staff of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) for a meeting, though Collins dug in further the more she sifted through Tanden’s record.
By Tuesday Collins said that the installation of Topher Spiro, a former Center for American Progress staffer and a Collins critic on Twitter, at the OMB “raises questions of whether she’s even capable of leaving behind her extremely partisan approach.” Collins called Spiro a “troll of mine.”
“Why would you put someone who is a troll against a United States senator in a key position in OMB?” she asked. She suggested Jeff Zients — Biden’s point man on the Covid crisis — would have been a far better choice than Tanden. The administration declined to comment on Spiro, who has deleted several tweets attacking Collins, which were posted years ago.
On Wednesday, two committees will hold votes on Tanden. Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whom Tanden had targeted in the past, has not yet said he supports her. Neither has Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who serves on the Homeland Security Committee.
Through it all, White House has continued to stand its ground. “We do believe there’s more than one path,” a source close to the nomination talks said Tuesday, but would not get more specific than to say it involved Republicans.
Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has told his caucus he wants Republicans to stick together on the Tanden vote, according to two sources with knowledge of the Senate minority leader’s remarks.
Republicans believe Murkowski, who was in attendance but did not respond to McConnell’s plea, is the only one GOP lawmaker seriously considering supporting Tanden. But even she seems unlikely — it hardly helps her back home to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial and then turn around and save Biden’s most endangered nominee.
Other Republicans who generally believe Biden should see his Cabinet confirmed saw no reason to give the president that much deference. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) met with Tanden and said he heard “from a number of Neera Tanden’s colleagues and friends who have been very supportive.”
But he found her conduct “not consistent with how I’ve voted in the past,” he said, “and the criticisms that I’ve leveled at others in the past for their mean tweets. And not consistent with the president’s vision of a more friendly environment.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.