Biden tees up confirmation battle over budget chief selection

Neera Tanden has been a lightning rod for both sides of the political divide

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, has rankled both the left and right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, has rankled both the left and right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 30, 2020 at 5:41pm

Neera Tanden, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for White House budget director, faces a rocky road to confirmation.

The president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress since 2011, Tanden has been something of a bomb-thrower, earning enmity from both the left and the right.

Tanden has broad experience in both policy and politics and deep ties to the Clintons. She served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign and later as director of domestic policy for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

She began her political career as an associate director for domestic policy in Bill Clinton’s White House, later serving as a health care adviser in the Obama administration.

Tanden’s policy prescriptions range from the center to the left in the Democratic Party. She opposes “Medicare for All” but favors a public Medicare option.

More than for her political views, Tanden has made enemies through her take-no-prisoners rhetorical style.

Drew Brandewie, an aide to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted that Tanden, “who has an endless stream of disparaging comments about the Republican Senators whose votes she’ll need, stands zero chance of being confirmed.” Cornyn himself on Monday said that Tanden was Biden’s “worst nominee so far.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's likely to be the top Budget Committee Republican next year, had one word to describe Tanden's chances: "Uphill."

There’s a lengthy public record of Tanden rebuking Senate Republicans, both generally and individually.

In a statement after Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed on Oct. 22, Tanden said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had “broken the Senate, he has broken the Supreme Court, and in conjunction with President Donald Trump, he has broken our democracy.”

In past tweets, Tanden has joked about McConnell’s “Moscow Mitch” moniker, a reference that Democrats have used to paint the Kentuckian as too cozy with Russia.

After Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was confirmed on Oct. 6, 2018, Tanden in a statement singled out Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as “the chief advocate for Judge Kavanaugh, offering a pathetically bad faith argument as cover for President Trump’s vicious attacks on survivors of sexual assault.”

Tanden went on to say Collins “revealed herself as a fake defender of Roe v. Wade, parroting ridiculous and debunked talking points.” In a separate tweet during the Kavanaugh hearings, Tanden wrote about Collins: “She is the worst.”

After the Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges on Feb. 5, Tanden released a statement saying the “vote can be seen as nothing less than Senate Republicans turning their backs on the Constitution and signaling approval of criminal foreign interference in our elections.”

Word was just starting to spread around the Senate GOP conference on Monday about Tanden’s prior commentary.

“I know that among my colleagues there’s something might be controversial, but that’s all I know,” said Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Budget Committee. “So I wouldn’t have a position yet on how I’d vote on it.”

‘Crocodile tears’

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer defended Tanden against the budding criticism on Monday.

“If Republicans are concerned about criticism on Twitter, their complaints are better directed at President Trump, who has made a hobby out of denigrating Republican senators on Twitter,” Schumer said on the floor. “I fully expect to see some crocodile tears spilled on the other side of the aisle over the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees, but it will be very tough to take those crocodile tears seriously.”

Progressives in the past haven’t been enthusiastic about Tanden or the Center for American Progress, citing her work on behalf of the Clintons and past policy positions in favor of putting some entitlement spending on the table in deficit reduction talks.

Vermont independent and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, slammed Tanden in a letter last year, saying she “repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.”

Sanders aides couldn’t be reached for comment. But other high-profile progressives seemed to be rallying around Tanden. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a senior member and former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted that Tanden “will bring the experience and humanity urgently needed” in the Office of Management and Budget director position.

Better than the alternative?

Others are at least not threatening to help Republicans tank her nomination.

Alexandra Rojas — executive director of Justice Democrats, which backs left-leaning candidates, including in party primaries — said in an email that “Neera Tanden is not someone progressives would have chosen.” But Rojas said Tanden was better than alternatives that have been floated, specifically citing Bruce Reed, who was a chief of staff to Biden during his vice presidency.

Reed, who’s been dubbed “Mr. Austerity” by some on the left, was executive director for the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission in 2010 that recommended $4 trillion in deficit reduction measures. By contrast, Rojas said, Tanden is “on the record over the past several years pushing back against nonsensical worries about the deficit.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanden argued that deficit concerns were overblown.

“While our national debt is a long-term problem that we can and should tackle, the struggles of our middle class and those trying to get into it is an urgent problem,” Tanden said in 2016 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And she almost mocked the notion that soaring debt will lead to higher interest rates that increase the cost of federal borrowing.

“Time and again, we have been told that the debt will spell economic doom in the form of high interest rates,” she said in her testimony. The Congressional Budget Office “has been predicting for years that Treasury interest rate increases were just around the corner” — a forecast that she said proved faulty.

“What troubles me most about our misguided austerity policies is that Congress has slashed the very programs that help low- and middle-income families get ahead,” Tanden told the Senate Budget Committee in 2014. “Food stamps have been cut. Proposals to cut nutrition aid would drop children from school lunch programs. Section 8 housing and welfare aren’t keeping up with the need.”

A veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, Tanden has backing from moderate Democrats and at least one conservative for her nomination as OMB director.

Tanden “knows political and policy, brilliantly balances & communicates about both,” Jason Furman, who chaired Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, tweeted. “She will lead a powerful OMB that is oriented around advancing the President’s most important goals, including tackling climate change, reducing inequality, and fostering growth.”

Conservative writer Bill Kristol, a Trump critic who served as chief of staff for former GOP Vice President Dan Quayle, tweeted that “serious conservatives, responsible moderates, and hard-headed liberal should want a tough-minded OMB head.” Tanden, he added, “is the right person for the job.”

‘Reimagined social contract’

In an article she wrote for Democracy Journal in June, Tanden anticipated Trump’s electoral loss and said Democratic control of the White House could presage a “reimagined social contract” that “reconfigures the relationship between government, corporation, and citizen, and presents a more fair and just way forward.”

Tanden argued for an update to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Among her recommendations:

  • Require corporations to rewrite their charters so they focus on workers and their communities as well as shareholders.
  • Ensure universal health care through a public Medicare option that would compete with private plans.
  • Institute universal paid leave to allow individuals to care for themselves or a sick relative.
  • Launch a jobs program to stimulate the economy and prepare for future catastrophes.

Tanden wrote that refurbishing schools would put people to work, as would building “a series of public universities throughout our country in rural and small town parts of states that haven’t seen growth.”

“And we must make sure these jobs are unionized with decent pay,” she wrote.

Jennifer Shutt and David Lerman contributed to this report.