“Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget. I’ll tell you what you value,” he said. “That’s what you are going to do for us, Neera.”
The president-elect seemed confident, as did Tanden when he spoke a few minutes later, that she would soon be settling into the suite of the Office of Management and Budget, off the west wing.
The slow collapse, dragging on for weeks, came to an end Tuesday night, when the White House announced that Tanden had withdrawn his nomination to avoid further distractions. In his own statement, Biden said he would still grant him a position in his administration, albeit one that does not require Senate confirmation.
The person considered one of the top contenders to be nominated in Tanden’s place, Shalanda Young, Biden’s choice to be deputy director of the WBO, quickly went through a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, earning praise even from conservative Republicans.
A lesson for the White House from Biden
Tanden’s downfall amounts to the first real stumbling block for the new team, which has yet to see most of Biden’s cabinet picks approved by large bipartisan majorities. All recent presidents have lost one or more of their nominees. It took President Barack Obama, for example, three attempts to find a secretary of commerce and two attempts to have a secretary of health and human services confirmed. When he left office, President Donald Trump had all but given up on making high-profile nominations, preferring to appoint acting secretaries.
From the moment of his nomination on December 1, Tanden worked to dispel skepticism about his selection, from both Democrats and Republicans. For much of the past three months, he met with 46 different senators, officials said, offering apologies and explanations for his salty, and often offensive, tweets he launched during Trump’s tenure. The fact that Tanden’s nomination drop was his Twitter account is an ironic turn of events given the vitriol the former president used to shed on the same platform before being suspended earlier this year.
“I deeply regret and apologize for my language and some of my past language,” Tanden said at his confirmation hearing last month, an acknowledgment that he still had work to do to win the hearts and minds of the senators who would determine his destination.
In the end, it was not enough. Even more, an administration official told CNN, the political capital that is being spent trying to save his confirmation is necessary to try to thread the complicated needle between Democrats to pass the Covid-19 aid bill in the Senate.
The episode underscores the government constraints facing Biden despite enjoying Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. And it illustrates what some Biden allies describe as overconfidence on the part of the president and his chief of staff, which was instrumental in driving Tanden’s selection, in handling a delicate political reality on Capitol Hill.
Tanden’s nomination was effectively thwarted by a single centrist Democrat: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose opposition statement last month on a Friday afternoon sent the White House upside down and provided an early warning of how a single vote it may thwart Biden’s legislative agenda. Manchin cited Tanden’s “openly partisan statements”, which he said would create toxicity between the White House and the Capitol.
Spending political capital
Manchin’s skepticism opened the door for more, but the White House insisted that for Tanden it was not over yet. And at Klain’s insistence, the administration kept pushing for it to be confirmed, even as it became increasingly clear that it would not get enough support.
Officials sought to highlight the backing of moderate Republicans outside of Congress, including former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. And they repeatedly pointed to her storied credentials (she would have been the first woman of South Asian descent to lead OMB) as evidence of her worthiness for confirmation.
“Let me be clear: we are going to get confirmation from Neera Tanden. That is what we are working on,” Klain said during an appearance on MSNBC last week.
He wasn’t alone in wanting to keep pushing; Biden himself was on board, as were other senior advisers, according to people familiar with the matter.
“We’re going to push,” Biden said last month, even as it became clear that the door to confirmation was closing. “We continue to think that there is a shot, a good shot.”
Still, within the administration, Klain was seen as Tanden’s strongest advocate and the most ardent voice to push for her nomination to continue.
“Ron is not a dispassionate observer here,” a senior Democrat who previously worked with Klain told CNN last week, before Tanden’s withdrawal, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. “He selected Neera and he doesn’t want this to fail.”
On Wednesday of last week, the two committees that were scheduled to vote on Tanden’s nomination abruptly delayed them. But it wasn’t the Republicans who caused the robbery; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist Democrat from Arizona, declined to say how she would vote, and the committee didn’t want to risk moving forward without knowing the outcome.
Speaking in the moments after the announcement of Tanden’s withdrawal, Murkowski did not appear surprised.
“It was like going in that direction,” he said, and then described how he had shown Tanden maps of Alaskan tribal lands during their long-awaited meeting.
In trouble from the start
It wasn’t how Biden or Tanden or Klain had imagined things would go three months ago.
When Tanden was selected, Biden’s transition team had believed that Republicans would control the Senate, making his nomination even more confusing. But at the time, Biden and his assistants were heavily leaning on her background, including how she was raised by a single mother who came to the United States from India.
“I’m here today for social programs,” Tanden said on the day of his nomination, standing on stage near Biden in Wilmington. “For budgetary decisions. For a government that saw the dignity of my mother and gave her an opportunity.”
However, one of the biggest hurdles to confirmation came after Georgia’s runoff elections effectively turned over control of the Senate to Democrats, suddenly making Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, the Budget Committee leader.
Tanden and Sanders had been publicly entangled for years, beginning in the 2016 presidential campaign, when she was working as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. Sanders blamed Tanden, among other establishment Democrats, for his loss in the primaries.
As of late Tuesday, Sanders hadn’t accepted her as Biden’s nominee to lead WBO.
“Neera Tanden doesn’t have the votes, so we’ll have to see what happens in the future,” Sanders told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly before the White House withdrew his nomination.
When pressed for his position, Sanders responded, “I will make that decision when the vote takes place.”
CNN’s Manu Raju, Phil Mattingly, and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.