Neera Tanden, Biden's pick as budget chief, faces tough confirmation test

Democrat Neera Tanden is Joe Biden's pick as White House budget chief. (Photo: Bloomberg)
President-elect Joe Biden is setting up his first confirmation fight with Senate Republicans by choosing Neera Tanden -- a sometimes-acerbic Democratic policy wonk with an often-partisan Twitter feed -- to serve as his White House budget chief.

Tanden, the tough-minded head of an influential Democratic think tank, is a veteran Hillary Clinton aide seasoned in Washington battles over Obamacare and Donald Trump’s presidency. Her selection Monday as Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget drew swift objections from GOP senators who could block her confirmation, with Senator John Cornyn of Texas calling her selection “radioactive.”

“Most Republicans are open to any reasonable nominee by the incoming administration,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We’re prepared to try to work with the vice president once the vote’s certified, but she certainly strikes me as his worst nominee so far.”

Republicans have so far refrained from voicing outright opposition to Biden’s other intended nominees, including former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to be Treasury secretary, or Antony Blinken for secretary of State. Yet they are drawing the line with Tanden, 50, who will be formally introduced to the public along with other economic team nominees by Biden during an event Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware.

Tanden was one of six nominees Biden announced Monday for his economic team, including Yellen, Cecilia Rouse to be chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey to be members of the CEA, and Adewale Adeyemo for deputy Treasury secretary. He has also picked Brian Deese to lead the National Economic Council in the White House, according to people familiar with his plans.

Tanden has been an outspoken backer of Democrats on Twitter and cable news channels, a role that is helping fuel the vehemence of Republican opposition. She tweeted “Love it,” when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was tagged “Moscow Mitch” for blocking legislation to protect elections from foreign interference and criticized Republican Senator Susan Collins for a “pathetically bad faith argument” in supporting confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Biden transition team recommended Tanden knowing that she would provoke Republican lawmakers, said a person familiar with the matter, but didn’t want to shrink from nominating someone they considered highly qualified.

The team plans to promote her personal story as part of their pitch that Biden’s economic advisers will understand the problems of working-class and poor people and work to reduce wealth inequality. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she was raised by a single mother who for part of Tanden’s childhood depended on federal housing assistance and food stamps.

Tanden didn’t return phone or email messages. Like other Biden transition officials, she referred to her mother’s time on public assistance in a statement she posted on Twitter.

“After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said. “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.”

The OMB director is responsible for overseeing the president’s annual budget and usually is one of the administration’s main negotiators with Congress on spending legislation. OMB also has extensive authority over federal agencies’ regulatory power, reviewing proposed rule changes on behalf of the White House.

Tanden’s nomination is a departure in a post that, especially early in a new administration, has often gone to people who spent years enmeshed in the intricacies of the congressional budgeting process such as Leon Panetta, who led the House Budget Committee for four years before Bill Clinton nominated him, and Peter Orszag, who was director of the Congressional Budget Office when chosen by Barack Obama.

Yet Tanden brings a firm grounding in health policy at a time when the expansions in coverage Biden seeks may depend on her undoing federal regulations that Trump used to undercut Obamacare. Her years as the director of the Center for American Progress think tank, founded during the George W. Bush administration to promote liberal policies, also have placed her in the middle of the party’s debates.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, likely to be chairman of the Budget Committee that would have to first confirm Tanden, predicted an “uphill” battle.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said. “She had a lot to say. Going to be a long hearing.”

Tanden’s nomination would also have to be approved by the Senate Homeland Security committee, which is likely to be led by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who was OMB director under George W. Bush. He told the Washington Post on Monday that Biden should pick another nominee.

Collins, whose support is key to getting 51 votes in a GOP Senate, said, “I do not know her much about her but I’ve heard that she’s a very prolific user of Twitter,” and declined further comment.

Tanden wouldn’t be the first political choice for the job. Trump selected Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and a follower of the Tea Party movement as his budget director, setting a precedent for the job to go to a fierce partisan warrior.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York scoffed at “overblown complaints” about Tanden’s past criticisms of Republicans.

“Honestly, the hypocrisy is astounding,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “If Republicans are concerned about criticism on Twitter, their complaints are better directed at President Trump.”

Clinton Ties

Tanden’s long connection with the Clinton family, stretching back to Bill Clinton’s White House and including roles as a policy adviser in Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign and 2008 presidential campaign, also have led to tangles with progressives in the party.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a former Democratic presidential candidate, sent a scathing letter in 2019 to the board of the Center for American Progress after a publication associated with the organization produced a video that went viral mocking Sanders for his status as a millionaire despite vilifying the wealthy in his campaigns. He accused Tanden of “maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.”

Sanders press representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, another progressive former presidential candidate, said she would back Tanden’s confirmation. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who also ran in this year’s Democratic presidential contest, extolled her in a Twitter post as “brilliant and laser-focused on making our country a fairer place for all.”

Tanden quickly moved past the bad blood in the 2008 Democratic primaries to shift from Clinton’s campaign to a role as chief domestic policy adviser to Obama in the general election. She was closely involved in the struggle for Obamacare as a senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain was closely involved in the Center for American Progress, including holding a position on the board of its affiliated action fund, and developed a high opinion of Tanden, said a person familiar with the transition.

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