Tanden nomination seemingly at dead end after votes scrapped

'It didn't look like she had the votes,' Sanders says

Neera Tanden, nominee for OMB director, testifies at her Feb. 10 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee. The two committee votes on her nomination were abruptly postponed Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP/Pool)
Neera Tanden, nominee for OMB director, testifies at her Feb. 10 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee. The two committee votes on her nomination were abruptly postponed Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP/Pool)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 9:44am, Updated at 7:48pm

Neera Tanden's nomination to be White House budget chief appeared close to collapse Wednesday after two panels postponed votes that would have sent her nomination to the floor and a tweet rebuking holdout GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski made the rounds on Capitol Hill.

"It didn't look like she had the votes," Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders told reporters of the delay.

The Vermont independent, who has a fraught relationship with Tanden, said he didn’t know if she would be able to secure the support she’ll need to become Office of Management and Budget director.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also postponed its vote after members said they wanted more time to review her nomination, according to Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich.  

Several high-profile defections in recent days have put Tanden's confirmation in jeopardy, starting with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who said Friday he couldn't support her based on her past attacks on other lawmakers.

That means Tanden needs the backing of at least one Republican senator, but her past social media posts kept imperiling her prospects of confirmation.

Murkowski told reporters she had much more research to do on Tanden after she was shown a tweet posted in December 2017 that was highly critical of Murkowski’s support for lowering the corporate tax rate in the GOP tax bill.

“No offense but this sounds like you’re high on your own supply. You know, we know, and everyone knows this is all garbage. Just stop,” Tanden wrote.

Murkowski said she didn’t know about the tweet and said she would have to do more “homework” on Tanden.

“It seems that in this world we've kind of gotten numb to derogatory tweets. I don't think that's a model that we want to set for anybody, whether it's a nominee, whether it's a president, or whether it's a senator,” Murkowski said. “I was trying to look at competence, but apparently I'm going to have to do more looking into what she thinks about me."

If Murkowski does oppose Tanden, the only option for the White House would be Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who remained undecided Wednesday, telling reporters he “had a couple of good conversations with her.”

White House chief of staff Ron Klain opened the door Wednesday evening to pulling Tanden’s nomination back, saying on MSNBC that if she can’t secure Senate confirmation for budget chief, the Biden administration will find a role for her that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. But he added the White House continues to fight for her to be confirmed as director.

Another option?

While Tanden’s path to confirmation stalled Wednesday, President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy director began moving forward.

The Budget Committee scheduled a confirmation hearing for Shalanda Young, whom Biden has nominated for deputy OMB director, for March 2. Young, a popular former top aide to House Appropriations Democrats, has been on the short list of potential candidates to replace Tanden if her nomination continues to falter.

Confirming Young as deputy, which under Senate rules could occur after just two hours of debate versus up to 30 hours for the No. 1 position at OMB, would position her to at minimum take the role of acting OMB director while the Biden administration decides its next move.

Young also doesn't have the problematic social media history that has plagued Tanden's confirmation process.

'Numbers game'

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki continued to back Tanden's nomination, telling reporters Wednesday it wasn’t yet time for Tanden to offer to withdraw.

“It's a numbers game. It's a matter of getting one Republican to support her nomination,” Psaki said. “We're continuing to do that outreach, answer questions they have and continue to reiterate her qualifications.”

Tanden has faced a rocky path to confirmation since Biden nominated her in November. Within hours, Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn referred to her as "radioactive."

The bulk of Republicans' criticism against Tanden has focused on past tweets in which she rebuked lawmakers for various actions or inactions, including calling Maine Sen. Susan Collins "the worst," saying that "vampires have more heart" than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and referring to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as "Voldemort" and "Moscow Mitch."

During confirmation hearings before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel as well as the Budget Committee earlier this month, Tanden repeatedly apologized to lawmakers for her past remarks. She said she'd take a "radically different" approach to social media if confirmed.

Sanders was skeptical, following years of tense back-and-forth with Tanden. During the hearing, Sanders rebuked Tanden for past statements, saying some of her comments were "vicious attacks made against progressives, people I have worked with and me personally."

Sanders also questioned Tanden about corporate donations made to the Center for American Progress during her leadership of the left-leaning think tank.

Tanden said those past contributions from the likes of Amazon, Google, JP Morgan, Walmart and Wells Fargo would have “zero impact” on her decision-making process if confirmed, but Sanders said he needed to know she wouldn't still be influenced by them.

The biggest blow to Tanden's nomination process came from Manchin, who announced his opposition Feb. 19.

"I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget," he said in a statement.

A few days later, Collins and fellow Republicans Mitt Romney of Utah and Rob Portman of Ohio all announced they would vote against Tanden's nomination. 

But scrapping the panel votes on Wednesday signals problems among Democrats.

The Senate Homeland Security panel includes Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, both of whom have more purple than blue constituencies. Sinema has declined to answer reporters' questions about her support for Tanden this week, and neither office has responded to requests for comment. 

Niels Lesniewski, David Lerman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.