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Biden’s chief of staff at center of controversy over White House budget pick

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain has adamantly defended Neera Tanden, both in public and internally

Ron Klain is seen in 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
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White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain is at the center of the controversy over President Biden’s choice to lead the budget office, a pick now likely to deal the administration its first significant political defeat.

Klain is an ally of Neera Tanden’s and a key advocate who recommended her to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, according to four senior Democratic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations. As Tanden’s strongest supporter in Biden’s inner circle, Klain has been adamant that the administration should continue to push for Tanden’s nomination despite the long odds, the officials said.

The rocky rollout of Tanden’s nomination is partly the result of the White House misjudging how harshly Republicans and at least one Democrat would judge her record, as well as some problems in failing to consult lawmakers ahead of the nomination. Tanden’s challenges in being confirmed also underscore the risks for the president’s chief of staff, who must maintain Biden’s confidence across a range of personnel and policy decisions.

Tanden is broadly popular among senior White House officials, who cite her life experience and long record in key policymaking positions, and has been repeatedly strongly backed by the president himself. The vast majority of congressional Democrats have also supported Tanden. Klain declined to comment.

“This was Ron, Ron, Ron, Ron,” one of the senior Democratic officials said. “Ron is doing a great job, but this was not his best moment.”

A few Biden Cabinet nominees, like Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden, are facing higher scrutiny. The delay could mar Biden’s plans. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced he will vote against Tanden, imperiling her nomination in a narrowly divided Senate and putting the White House in the awkward position of scrambling to find Republican votes to secure her confirmation. One key GOP senator — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — said Wednesday that she has not made a decision, although she was critical of Tanden’s past rhetoric and skeptical of the White House’s efforts to persuade her. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whom administration officials named as a potential supporter, said Thursday that he would oppose Tanden.

If Tanden’s nomination is withdrawn, Klain’s handling of it may face scrutiny. Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.) was not given a heads-up about Tanden’s nomination, although Sanders and Tanden have often been at odds. Critics also contend that Klain and other White House officials should have known Tanden faced a difficult path to Senate approval, based on her reputation among GOP lawmakers, and that they should have reached out to Republicans earlier.

“The White House misjudged this,” said Brian Riedl, conservative scholar at the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute. “Had they done outreach to Republican senators, they would have known that Tanden has long been well-known in Republican circles.”

Appearing on MSNBC on Wednesday night, Klain strongly defended Tanden as a “superb” pick to lead OMB and said “we’re fighting our guts out” to get her confirmed. If rejected by the Senate, Klain said, Tanden would be given an administration position not requiring Senate confirmation. The White House declined to comment or make Klain available for this story.

“Let me be clear: We’re going to get Neera Tanden confirmed. That’s what we’re working for. And she will be prove her critics wrong as an outstanding budget director that works with people on both sides of the aisle,” Klain said on MSNBC Wednesday night. “That’s what I think her record truly shows.”

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Klain and Tanden have overlapped in Democratic circles for more than two decades. Klain served as a board member at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, the think tank led by Tanden.

After serving as Biden’s chief of staff during the Obama administration, Klain was brought in as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Tanden is a long-standing Clinton confidante. And Klain’s relationship with the Clintons dates to Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House, as well as serving as chief of staff to former vice president Al Gore.

When Klain was appointed to coordinate the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak during the Obama administration, Tanden issued an effusive statement in 2014, praising him.

White House officials said that Tanden is well-liked across the administration and that the president is sticking by the nomination — something acknowledged even by those skeptical of the pick.

Biden has said that Tanden is “smart as hell" and called her a “brilliant policy mind with critical, practical experience across government." The president has repeatedly vowed to find the votes to secure her approval through the Senate. Biden did not come up with the idea to nominate Tanden but closely reviewed her nomination before deciding to support her, the Democratic officials said.

Other senior administration officials — including Vice President Harris; White House counselor Steve Ricchetti; and Reema Dodin, deputy legislative director — are also among those viewed as loyal to Tanden and supportive of her continuing to fight for her nomination, according to two people granted anonymity to share details of internal dynamics.

One senior official involved in the selection of Biden’s Cabinet, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details from internal conversations, said Tanden was a “no-brainer for a high-level policy role” in a Democratic administration and enjoyed substantial support among Biden’s team.

In addition to recommending Tanden, Klain also strongly recommended Merrick Garland, Biden’s pick for attorney general; Deb Haaland, his pick for interior secretary; Jennifer Granholm, the nominee for energy secretary; and Cecilia Rouse, his choice to lead the White House Council of Economic Advisers, according to one person granted anonymity to discuss private deliberations led by the president. Those nominees are all expected to have a smoother path to confirmation, with Manchin announcing Wednesday that he will vote for Haaland.

Still, Tanden’s selection has fueled Republican complaints about the direction of the administration, particularly because of her insults of GOP lawmakers on Twitter. She called Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) “the worst” and referred to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Voldemort," among other epithets. Tanden deleted many of these tweets before her confirmations hearings and apologized for them repeatedly during her hearings.

“This administration has a lot of experienced people in it, and I was surprised that red flags did not go off, or that they weren’t raised when Neera Tanden was first discussed,” Collins said Wednesday.

To some, Tanden’s nomination represented a surprising misfire by Klain when it was announced along with other economic appointments on Nov. 29. At that point, Republicans appeared likely to maintain control of the Senate, and the Georgia runoff elections were more than a month away. Even some Biden transition officials knew it would be a challenge for Tanden to secure approval through the Senate, two of the senior Democratic officials said.

Tanden surprised skeptics by working hard to assuage the concerns of lawmakers. “She really did reach out to everyone and apologize, and busted her tail, and said all the right things,” one senior Democratic official said. “What’s happened is deeply sad in a lot of ways because she’s thrown herself into the work. She took time to really dig in and learn about Republican priorities and the work of OMB. Recognizing the challenge, I think she has done almost twice as much as other nominees.”

Tanden has engaged with at least 44 senators, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Her allies also believed that Manchin was going to be supportive before the West Virginia senator announced his opposition to her nomination, two senior Democratic officials said.

Biden allies also thought President Donald Trump’s Cabinet selections might make it easier for Tanden to be approved, several senior Democratic officials said. Democrats had assumed Tanden’s path to the OMB job would be easier given that conservative firebrands Russ Vought and Mick Mulvaney had both led the budget office under Trump. They have also pointed to Tanden’s experience, both at high levels of government and while leading the Center for American Progress, a multimillion-dollar think tank central to Democratic policymaking.

While Tanden has faced criticism for her partisan streak, Mulvaney once called himself a “right-wing nutjob” and also launched personal attacks on lawmakers including Trump, his eventual boss, whom he called a “terrible human being” in 2016, according to the Daily Beast. Mulvaney was confirmed by the Republican Senate in 2017. Trump’s personal insults of GOP and Democratic lawmakers were also prodigious.

“Republicans are guilty of astounding hypocrisy, astounding hypocrisy,” former governor Ed Rendell (D-Pa.) said. “For them to complain about calling somebody names on Twitter — after they stood by and supported the president — is just pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.”

But problems from Tanden’s past have continued to interfere with her nomination, even among Democrats. In addition to Manchin, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sanders (I-Vt.) have not yet said how they would vote for Tanden.

Sanders staffers and Klain had a close relationship in the aftermath of the Democratic presidential primary, working together on the Democratic platform. Some said they felt blindsided not to have been told about the selection of a Sanders adversary to a major Cabinet post, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private matter.

Asked about the matter on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news conference that Sanders is frequently consulted on other matters and works closely with the president. She added that during the transition “there often was consultation with a limited number of members, but it typically was not very broad.”

As of Wednesday, White House officials were still expressing optimism that a GOP senator could be convinced to salvage Tanden’s nomination. Whether they succeed will be an early test for Klain, who has emerged as one of the more crucial figures in shaping the direction of the Biden administration.

Along with White House Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, Klain helped spearhead Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan and resisted pressure from Republican lawmakers — as well as some moderate Democrats — who argued that its price tag was too high.

That stimulus package is not expected to garner any GOP votes. After a meeting in the Oval Office earlier this month between Biden and 10 Senate Republicans, Collins and other Republican aides complained that Klain shook his head in silent disagreement, while they talked. A senior administration official later said Klain disagreed when he thought Republicans had their facts wrong or considered their suggestions hypocritical.

So far at least, Klain has helped hold together the Democratic coalition during the contentious stimulus negotiations, earning plaudits from a broad range within the party. White House officials have also touted broad support for most of Biden’s nominees to this point, with 10 Cabinet picks confirmed so far, despite a delay because of Trump’s rejection of the election results. Other nominees are expected to be confirmed imminently.

“Klain seems like he’s really listening to the grass roots. It’s a change obviously from Trump but even from the Obama era when it was mostly a one-way street of the White House telling people what to do,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a left-leaning advocacy group.