The two Senate Republicans poised to lead committees that would hold Tanden’s confirmation hearings both declined to commit to doing so. One of them — Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is in line to chair the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — also said he hopes that Biden will decide not to formally nominate Tanden.
“The concern I have is both judgment, based on the tweets that I’ve been shown, just in the last 24 hours … and it’s the partisan nature,” said Portman, a former Office of Management and Budget director himself. “Of all the jobs, that’s one where I think you would need to be careful not to have someone who’s overtly partisan.”
The other potential committee chairman who would oversee Tanden’s hearings, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chuckled when asked about Tanden on Monday, noting that she in the past has had a lot to say about him. He also declined to commit to hearings for her, saying only that he’ll “cross that bridge when we get there.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters, “I’m not disqualifying anybody, but I do think it gets a lot harder obviously if they send someone from their progressive left that [is] kind of out of the mainstream.” Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s first budget director, told Fox News that Tanden had very little chance of being confirmed.
Tanden is drawing ire now for condemning Republicans in striking terms. On Oct. 28, Tanden called President Trump a “puppet” of Russia. On Oct. 30, Tanden responded to a clip on Fox News by saying Trump supporters “need to see a landslide [election] to be shaken out of the cult.” Tanden in July accused Republicans of creating “death panels” in handling the coronavirus and of “telling seniors they’re expendable.” Tanden has posted on Twitter more than 80,000 times, more often than the president.
Tanden wouldn’t be the first recent OMB nominee to face a contested Senate confirmation. Mulvaney was narrowly approved, as just 51 senators voted to confirm him for the post. Democrats broadly opposed Mulvaney because of his past efforts to slash the budget and his role in a previous government shutdown. Mulvaney even received a “no” vote from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But Republicans controlled the Senate during Mulvaney’s confirmation, making his passage a bit easier.
A loyal Democrat with decades of senior policymaking experience, Tanden has been tapped by Biden to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, which plays a crucial role in setting the president’s economic agenda and approving agency policies. She would be the first woman of color to lead the budget office.
She is a close ally of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and served as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, where she helped draft the Affordable Care Act. She is the president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank with deep ties to Democratic policymakers. The OMB plays a pivotal role in the White House because of its work in setting the federal budget and clearing new regulations.
“She’ll be well-situated to play hard,” said Dean Baker, a liberal economist. “Tanden is obviously an inside player, but she has been around Washington and will be smart on pushing stuff in ways that get through.”
If confirmed to lead the OMB, Tanden would be one of the central economic voices in the Biden administration, along with Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chairwoman chosen to lead the Treasury Department; Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton economist tapped as head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; and Brian Deese, a BlackRock investment executive named to lead the White House National Economic Council. All but Deese would require Senate confirmation.
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said he didn’t see any reason he would oppose Yellen, but he said Tanden was Biden’s “worst nominee so far.”
“I think, in light of her combative and insulting comments about many members of the Senate, mainly on our side of the aisle, that it creates certainly a problematic path,” he said Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Republicans were being hypocritical, having brushed aside Trump’s frequent Twitter attacks only to now express alarm about things Tanden has said in the past.
“Honestly, the hypocrisy is astounding,” he said. “If Republicans are concerned about criticism on Twitter, their complaints are better directed at President Trump. I fully expect to see some crocodile tears spilled on the other side of the aisle over the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees.”
Republicans currently hold a 50-to-48 majority in the Senate. The Georgia runoff elections for the two remaining seats in early January will determine which party controls the chamber when Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
Tanden would be required to go through two separate confirmation hearings: one through the Budget Committee and the other through the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The OMB is also a rare Cabinet position for which nominees have to submit their tax returns to the committees for review.
Tanden has a history of more pointed and partisan critiques of opponents than does Yellen, Deese or Rouse, feuding on Twitter with conservatives as well as supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Her supporters praise her passion and willingness to fight aggressively across a range of policy issues, including her pushback against Republican deficit concerns at a time when many economists believe further stimulus spending is necessary to propel the economy.
“You need people with toughness. Neera has that,” former congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said. “She knows what she’s doing. She understands the politics.”
Tanden’s sometimes adversarial approach appears to strike a different tone than what Biden had promised during the campaign. In his victory speech, Biden called on Americans to “put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again.” He added: “We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies.”
Tanden’s comments may not be out of bounds within the climate of her party, however. Biden himself has also fiercely condemned Republicans at times. Under Tanden, CAP worked with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, on a series of events, including one that featured former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican at odds with Trump.
Still, Tanden is likely to face the most difficult path to Senate confirmation of all Biden’s picks so far, according to interviews with a half-dozen Republican aides and strategists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.
Tanden has also occasionally clashed with Sanders and his allies, with the senator attacking CAP over its reliance on corporate donations. The identities of these donors and whether they might have business before the OMB next year could be a source of scrutiny as Tanden navigates the Senate confirmation process. A think tank official said in an email that less than 2.5 percent of CAP’s funding came from corporate sources and that its research frequently broke with the wishes of its donors.
Briahna Joy Gray, a former Sanders spokeswoman, called Tanden’s selection “less of an olive branch than a middle finger to the left.” But several prominent liberal lawmakers and economists, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), defended Tanden on Monday.
Tanden declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for Sanders also declined to comment.
Part of Tanden’s appeal to Biden’s team is her wide range of experience in leading CAP, which is one of the largest think tanks in Washington and deals with national security, domestic security and economic policy — all areas that the OMB director oversees, according to a person familiar with the transition. Biden’s team is also expected to frequently highlight Tanden’s hardscrabble upbringing, according to people close to the nomination process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
A daughter of Indian immigrants, Tanden was raised by a single mother who relied on government assistance programs. Tanden later attended UCLA and Yale Law School.
“After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said on Twitter on Monday. “Now, I’m being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure, and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored.”
Tanden held prominent policy positions in the administrations of Obama and Bill Clinton, and her résumé was a factor in her selection to lead the OMB. She has denied playing a role in welfare reform under Clinton, which many Democrats now view as a disastrous mistake. At CAP, Tanden helped push the party left on budget and spending issues, although she — along with many other Washington liberals — at one time expressed openness to cutting Social Security and Medicare.
In 2012, the think tank was riven by a debate over how aggressively to raise taxes on the rich in its official proposal for replacing the expiring George W. Bush tax cuts. Tanden pushed forcefully, and successfully, for the center to endorse a higher 39.6 percent top marginal bracket, according to multiple people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal the nature of the internal debate.
Tanden also oversaw the creation of a liberal coalition group, called Hands Off, devoted to fighting Republican efforts to cut social programs such as food stamps. CAP helped spearhead the charge against many of the changes pushed through by Trump’s budget office, including policies designed to make it harder for immigrants to secure government assistance and rules limiting government regulations. Her allies say that experience makes her almost uniquely well-suited to roll back many of the steps taken by the Trump administration.
“CAP has been at the center of most of the big fights through four years of Trump,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, a left-leaning policy group. “That speaks to someone coming in who knows what norms were broken — and where we will have to throw down.”