WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday abandoned its push to install Neera Tanden as the director of President Joe Biden’s budget office after it became clear that she could not overcome congressional opposition in both parties, making her nomination the first casualty of the evenly split Senate.
In a statement, Biden said that Tanden had requested that her nomination for director of the Office of Management and Budget be withdrawn and that, while he agreed to do so, he planned to find a place in his administration for her to serve in a different capacity.
“I have the utmost respect for her record of accomplishment, her experience and her counsel,” he wrote, bowing to the reality of the first significant defeat of his presidency. “I look forward to having her serve in a role in my administration. She will bring valuable perspective and insight to our work.”
Tanden, who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, had drawn bipartisan criticism for a prolific stream of social media posts that criticized lawmakers in both parties, often in vitriolic terms, and for her work at a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress. Biden selected her to direct the budget office before Democrats had won control of the Senate, surprising lawmakers and aides in both parties.
The pick also surprised many of the economic aides in Biden’s inner circle, which Tanden had not been a part of, who saw her as more publicly combative and less bipartisan than most of Biden’s other nominees.
In a letter released Tuesday by the White House, Tanden asked Biden to end her nomination, acknowledging the political opposition to her serving as the administration’s budget chief. “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,” she wrote.
A senior administration official said Tuesday night that Biden and Tanden had agreed to give up on the nomination after Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, made clear to the White House earlier in the day that she would not vote for her.
The official said it was a “mutual understanding” that without Murkowski’s support, and with the public opposition to Tanden’s confirmation from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., there was no longer a path forward in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
But asked Tuesday evening on Capitol Hill if she had told anyone in the White House that she would vote against the nomination, Murkowski said she had not. “No, I never did,” she said. “They never asked.”
While Tanden’s social media posts were often aggressive, White House officials believed Republican senators would not scuttle a nomination over Twitter behavior after years of standing behind President Donald Trump, who excoriated Republicans and Democrats alike in frequent Twitter rants. The officials also thought senators would be drawn to the groundbreaking nature of Tanden’s nomination — she would have been the first Indian American to lead the budget office and had a personal story of being raised by a single mother who at times relied on government assistance to get by.
Tanden and a variety of groups supporting her were able to secure several high-profile endorsements, including one from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the White House underestimated what would become bipartisan consternation over Tanden’s posts, particularly given Biden’s repeated calls for “unity” after four years of divisive rhetoric from Trump.
During two confirmation hearings, senators in both parties grilled Tanden about her social media posts and her decision to delete more than 1,000 tweets after the election in November. Among those who questioned her social media comments was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee, who singled out Tanden’s “vicious attacks” on him and the staff that supported his 2016 presidential campaign.
She apologized, but it was clear that some senators were not inclined to accept it. That included Manchin, whose decision last month to oppose her nomination dealt a crucial blow to her chances of confirmation.
“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,” Manchin said at the time. “For this reason, I cannot support her nomination.”
Less than a week ago, top White House aides had vowed not to give up on Tanden, accusing Republicans of being overly sensitive about her online criticism of them and promising that the president intended to fight for his right to select his own advisers.
Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff and a champion of Tanden’s nomination to the budget post, said last week that the administration was “fighting our guts out” to get her confirmed. And Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said Biden was continuing to work the phones with senators to build support for her.
“The president nominated Neera Tanden because she is qualified, because she is experienced, because she has a record of working with people who agree and disagree with her,” Psaki said at the time.
One administration official said Tuesday that the aggressive push on Tanden’s behalf, including Klain’s television appearances, was in part intended to blunt criticism from the left wing of the president’s party for not fighting on behalf of a qualified woman of color who was mainly being criticized for her Twitter account.
Tanden apologized for her posts during her two contentious confirmation hearings, saying, “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry for any hurt they’ve caused.”
Her chances at winning the support of a majority of senators diminished rapidly in the weeks after those hearings, as Manchin and centrist Republicans — including Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine — announced they would not back her. That imperiled Tanden’s margin for confirmation, leading two committees to abruptly postpone votes last week on advancing her nomination.
Republican leaders privately counseled their senators to remain united in opposition to Tanden. Murkowski, a moderate who was thought to be a potential supporter, had not publicly announced her position — but it was not clear that there would be enough Democrats behind Tanden to confirm her even if she had won Murkowski’s backing.
Sanders was among the lawmakers who repeatedly declined to say how he would vote on Tanden’s confirmation, saying on CNN shortly before the White House pulled the nomination that “I will make that decision when the vote takes place.”
Tanden’s supporters continued to believe as recently as Tuesday that she would garner the support of every Senate Democrat besides Manchin if she were able to win Murkowski’s vote. In an effort to secure that support, Tanden met with Murkowski on Monday.
The senator walked Tanden through what she called her “Alaska Tutorial 101” — complete with maps of tribal lands, state waters and roadless areas — and outlined a series of concerns about the effect of some of the Biden administration’s economic proposals on her state.
Murkowski, speaking after the nomination was withdrawn, said, “I guess the message that it sends is that you really have to work your agenda, extra hard,” given the 50-50 split. “I think they probably thought well, OK, well we’ll have Manchin right? So we don’t need a Republican. Well, maybe it’s a lesson that you’re not always going to have Manchin.”
White House officials had remained adamant in their support for Tanden, who would have become the first woman of color to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Democrats also argued that Tanden was facing unfair scrutiny, particularly given that their Republican counterparts had spent years expressing no concern about the often offensive and racist posts made by Trump.
Psaki has declined to address questions about fallback nominees, including Gene Sperling, a former National Economic Council director, and Ann O’Leary, former chief of staff to Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.
But some House Democrats have pushed hard in recent days for the White House to scrap Tanden’s nomination and substitute Shalanda Young, the first Black woman to serve as the staff director for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. She is Biden’s pick to be the No. 2 at the budget agency.
Some administration officials expect Biden to nominate Young to head the agency, though Sperling remains a contender. At least one top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who worked with Young as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, issued a statement this month declaring that she “would have my support, and I suspect many of my Republican colleagues would support her as well.”
At Young’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers in both parties lavished her with praise for her work on Capitol Hill, helping negotiate legislation that ended the nation’s longest government shutdown in 2019 and a series of pandemic relief bills in 2020.
“Everybody that deals with you on our side has nothing but good things to say,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the budget panel. “You might talk me out of voting for you, but I doubt it.”
“You’ll get my support, maybe for both jobs,” he noted.
As a candidate, Biden had argued that his long-standing relationships in Congress, where he served for 36 years as a senator, would allow him to corral bipartisan support for his policies and his personnel by appealing to Republicans and moderate Democrats as well as liberal stalwarts in his party.
But since taking office, the president has struggled to turn that promise into reality. His administration is pressing forward with a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that appears unlikely to win much Republican support in the Senate. His efforts to pass an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour quickly faltered.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like being in the administration and trying to figure out, OK, how do we make something happen here,” Murkowski said. “They’ve got a pretty, pretty big learning curve right now.”