Neera Tanden out, ending lengthy stalemate over divisive OMB nominee

The withdrawal ends weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying, despite red flags raised by both parties

Neera Tanden moderates a discussion on Feb. 12, 2018.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Neera Tanden moderates a discussion on Feb. 12, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 2, 2021 at 7:52pm

The White House pulled Neera Tanden’s nomination for budget director Tuesday, ending a fraught nomination process that highlighted the power moderate Democrats hold in a 50-50 Senate.

The decision ends weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying by the White House and Tanden allies who defended her nomination until the end, despite a lack of support from Republicans and concerns from several moderate Democrats.

“I appreciate how hard you and your team at the White House has worked to win my confirmation,” Tanden wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden. “Unfortunately, it now seems clear that there is no path forward to gain confirmation, and I do not want continued consideration of my nomination to be a distraction from your other priorities.”

Tanden’s withdrawal is the first major setback for Biden as he assembles his Cabinet.

The White House has not yet announced who Biden will nominate instead for the role of Office of Management and Budget director, though Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are lining up behind Shalanda Young.

Young was the first Black woman to hold the post of staff director and clerk for the House Appropriations Committee and is currently nominated for the deputy director role.

During her confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Budget Committee, Young received the backing of several Republicans including ranking member Lindsey Graham.

The South Carolina Republican told Young that he would support her for the role of OMB director, should the White House nominate her for the position.

“You’ll get my support, maybe for both jobs,” Graham said.

Young also has the backing of Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Richard C. Shelby.

“She’s smart, she knows the process inside-out, and she’s an honest broker who has demonstrated the ability to work with both sides and get things done,” Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters on Feb. 24. “She would have my support.”

Other possible picks for OMB director include Ann O’Leary, former chief of staff to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Gene Sperling, former National Economic Council director for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Inauspicious beginning

Tanden’s confirmation to be the Office of Management and Budget director was unlikely from the start.

When Biden announced her as his pick in November, no one knew whether Republicans or Democrats would control the Senate, but it was highly likely that Bernie Sanders would lead the Budget Committee for Democrats if he remained on Capitol Hill.

Sanders and Tanden had a frosty relationship at best, making him a potential obstacle rather than a supporter.

Tanden worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign during the tense 2016 Democratic primaries against Sanders, led the Center for American Progress while it received millions in corporate donations and didn’t support the “Medicare for All” health care proposal.

That tense relationship was highlighted in 2019 when Sanders sent a letter to CAP accusing Tanden of "maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas."

Graham told reporters soon after Biden's announcement of Tanden as his pick that he didn’t know if he’d actually hold a confirmation hearing for her if his party maintained control of the chamber. 

The nomination indicated the Biden team was confident in Tanden’s ability to garner bipartisan support from a Senate controlled by either party, though her prior social media activity should have been a red flag that wouldn’t happen.

Tanden repeatedly criticized Republicans on Twitter, 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.”

Tanden also asked Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski if she was “getting high” on her own “supply” in 2017 after Murkowski tweeted support for the corporate tax provisions in her party’s tax overhaul package.

“You know, we know, and everyone knows this is all garbage. Just stop,” Tanden continued.

Tanden’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees served as an apology tour of sorts where Tanden repeatedly told senators she regretted her past tweets and would take a “radically different” approach to social media if confirmed.

A few days after the hearings, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III announced his opposition to Tanden, saying in a statement that “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.”

Several Republicans who could have offset Manchin’s “no” vote — including Collins, Utah’s Mitt Romney and Ohio’s Rob Portman — all released statements opposing Tanden.

The two panels were scheduled to hold separate votes on her nomination on Feb. 24 but postponed the markup just hours before they were set to begin.

Homeland Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., said members wanted more time to review her nomination, while Sanders told reporters she didn’t have the votes to be approved.

Murkowski, the only other Republican who could have saved Tanden’s nomination, spoke with Tanden on Monday night but had not announced whether she would support the nominee as of Tuesday night.

“I spent a lot of time talking about Alaska's rather unique situation, because she's not familiar with Alaska,” Murkowski told reporters Tuesday afternoon “It was good, it was a wide-ranging conversation.”

The White House continued to support Tanden — who would have been the first Asian American woman in the post — throughout the stalemate, with Biden, Chief of Staff Ron Klain and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki all saying they had confidence she would gain the support needed for confirmation.

Despite withdrawing from the process, Tanden will still become a member of the Biden administration.

“I have the utmost respect for her record of accomplishment, her experience and her counsel, and I look forward to having her serve in a role in my Administration,” Biden said in a statement. “She will bring valuable perspective and insight to our work.”