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Democrats line up behind Shalanda Young amid new jostling over Biden budget pick

Shalanda Young, nominee for the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), testifies before the Senate Budget Committee during her confirmation hearing. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The White House’s decision to withdraw Neera Tanden as the nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget set off a new political scramble in Washington on Wednesday over who President Biden will select to oversee broad swaths of his agenda.

Top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), swiftly coalesced around Shalanda Young, a former congressional budget aide, as their preference to serve as the next OMB chief. The prominent endorsement — along with a slew of additional, supportive statements from centrists and progressives alike — quickly solidified Young as a front-runner a day after she drew bipartisan plaudits during a confirmation hearing for a lower-level agency role.

Tanden’s withdrawal marked the first major political setback for the Biden White House as it has raced in its opening weeks to confirm key nominees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The defeat has created an unexpected crunch for the new administration as it seeks to nominate and confirm a new OMB director in time for the release of its first federal budget in a matter of weeks. The spending blueprint marks a major opportunity for the new president to articulate his vision for the country beyond the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package under consideration in the Senate.

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Asked about the early support, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday declined to comment on Young or name an alternate nominee, predicting at her daily press briefing that they would not have any news about the future of OMB this week. In doing so, the Biden administration ultimately invited a new round of speculation about its slate of prospective candidates, whose names first emerged when Tanden’s nomination started to sour amid congressional opposition over her past incendiary tweets.

Some congressional Democrats, and progressives elsewhere in Washington, signaled anew their support for Gene Sperling, who previously served as a top economic adviser to President Bill Clinton. Still a third candidate, Ann O’Leary, has emerged as a potential candidate given her past work for California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and close ties to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

The jostling reflects the significant stakes looming over Biden and his closely followed selection for a critical agency known little outside the corridors of Washington. The OMB and its director have vast power in preparing the president’s budget — and working with Congress to carry out the economic vision it represents — meaning Biden’s choice could carry lasting repercussions as he seeks to shore up legislative support for coronavirus aid or longer-term tax and infrastructure changes.

“When you have a Biden economic agenda that is trying to put a lot of money into the economy, at the same time as trying to accomplish a whole lot of new initiatives… all of this means OMB is going to be ground zero for getting this done,” said Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), a member of the Budget Committee.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), another panel member, predicted Young in particular could help shore up support for Biden’s agenda given the early backing she has received from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“It’s very clear her background is a very good [quality] for the new president of the United States because he spent years working in the country trying to build coalitions,” he said. “And what has become evident in the last few days is [Young] has that same kind of background.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

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Tanden’s controversial, past attacks on lawmakers from both parties ultimately created insurmountable obstacles in the Senate, where Democrats hold a tiebreaking majority. Psaki said Wednesday the administration still hopes to find Tanden a new position elsewhere.

The urgent need to fill the position has helped open the door for Young, who Biden already had tapped for the No. 2 job at the OMB. A former staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending, Young drew bipartisan plaudits during her confirmation hearing earlier in the week.

Appearing on Tuesday before Senate lawmakers, Young touted her Louisiana roots — and her battle scars from past Washington budget showdowns — as she pledged to work with GOP lawmakers on “compromise” at the budget agency. Senate Republicans responded by repeatedly praising her candor: Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate Budget Committee, opened his statement at the Tuesday hearing by pledging to vote for her confirmation. And Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) explicitly had endorsed Young for the top job at the OMB, before Tanden had withdrawn for that post.

The Congressional Black Caucus similarly showered Young, who is Black, with support: The powerful bloc sent a letter to the president on Tuesday, stressing that her 14-year record in Congress would help Biden implement his agenda. Centrist Democrats sent their own laudatory missive on Wednesday, with the New Democrat Coalition stressing Young would help it “navigate the pandemic, our economic recovery, and other pressing priorities.”

But the most prominent endorsement came earlier in the day from House leadership: Pelosi joined House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) in a public statement stressing her ability to “craft budgets that meet the challenges of our time and can secure broad, bipartisan support.”

On the Hill, Hoyer on Wednesday said he had pitched Young as a potential OMB leader during a call with the president; his aides said he first raised her as a candidate before Tanden had been announced for the role. The House Appropriations Committee declined to comment.

A smaller contingent of Democrats in recent days has sounded off anew in support of Sperling, an economist who led the National Economic Council and held other key roles for former Clinton and President Barack Obama. A moderate during his earlier time in government, Sperling eked out more progressive positions as he aided Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, endearing him to some in Washington who previously had criticized his record. Sperling did not respond to an email seeking comment.

O’Leary had been seen as a potential OMB chief before Biden ultimately tapped Tanden. A former policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, O’Leary most recently has served as Newsom’s chief of staff. Newsom in recent months has been embroiled in controversy for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Republicans have mounted an effort to force his ouster. O’Leary did not respond to a request for comment.

Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.