Biden’s Indian-American pick for White House budget office sparks controversy

Neera Tanden (Courtesy: Center for American Progress)

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the powerful White House budget office generated early controversy Monday, with Neera Tanden emerging as an immediate target for conservatives and Republican lawmakers.

Tanden, 50, has regularly clashed with the GOP in a manner that Republicans say will complicate her Senate confirmation process. Several GOP senators said Monday that she could run into trouble during confirmation hearings, warning that her “partisan” background could make it hard for her to win Republican support.

The two Senate Republicans poised to lead committees that would hold Tanden‘s confirmation hearings 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.

Biden announces appointment of Indian-American to top economic post

“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 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 senators will “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 Donald Trump’s first budget director, told Fox News that Tanden had very little chance of being confirmed.

Tanden would not be the first recent OMB nominee to face a contested Senate confirmation. Mulvaney was narrowly approved; 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 policy-making experience, Tanden has been tapped by Biden to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), 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 was a close ally of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and served as a senior adviser to President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, where she helped draft the Affordable Care Act. She most recently served as president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank with deep ties to Democratic policy-makers. The OMB plays a pivotal role in the White House because of its role 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 University economist chosen to lead the White House Council of Economic Advisers; and Brian Deese, a BlackRock executive named to lead the White House National Economic Council. All but Deese would require Senate confirmation.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said he did not see any reason why he would oppose Yellen, but he called Tanden 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 Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Republicans were being hypocritical after 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 hold a 50-48 majority in the Senate. There is a Georgia runoff election for the two remaining seats in early January that will determine which party controls the Senate when Biden takes office on Jan. 20, 2021.

Tanden would be required to go through two Senate confirmation hearings – one through the Budget Committee and the other through the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The OMB is a rare Cabinet position in which nominees have to file their tax returns to the committees for review.

Tanden has a history of engaging in more pointed and partisan critiques of opponents than Yellen, Deese, or Rouse, feuding on Twitter with conservatives and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Tanden‘s supporters praise her passion and willingness to fight aggressively across a range of policy issues, including her push against Republican deficit concerns at a time many economists believe further stimulus spending is necessary to propel the economy.

“You need people with toughness. Neera has that,” said former congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass. “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 to pursue during the campaign. In his presidential election victory speech, Biden called on Americans to “put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, to see each other again.” Biden added: “We have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies.”

Tanden‘s comments may not be out of bounds with the climate of her party, however. Biden himself has also fiercely condemned Republicans at times. Under Tanden, the CAP worked with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, on a series of events, including one that featured former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican at odds with the president.

Still, Tanden probably will face the most difficult path to Senate confirmation of Biden’s picks so far, according to interviews with six Republican aides and strategists who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.

Tanden has occasionally clashed with Sanders and his allies, with the senator criticizing the CAP think tank 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 CAP official said in an email that less than 2.5% of the organization’s funding came from corporate sources and that its research frequently broke with the wishes of its donors.

Meanwhile, 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 report, as did a spokesman for Sanders.

Part of Tanden‘s appeal to Biden’s team is her wide range of experience leading the 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 person familiar with the transition. Biden’s team is 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.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Tanden was raised by a single mother who relied on government assistance programs before attending the University of California at Los Angeles and Yale University’s law school.

“After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden tweeted 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 Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and her resume played a role in her selection to lead the OMB. She has denied playing a role in Clinton’s welfare policy, which many Democrats now view as a mistake. At the Center for American Progress, Tanden also helped push the party left on budget and spending issues, though she initially expressed openness to cutting Social Security and Medicare along with many other Washington liberals at the time.

In 2012, the think tank was riven by a debate over how to raise taxes on the rich in their official proposal for replacing the then-expiring tax cuts from the George W. Bush administration. Tanden pushed forcefully, and successfully, for the center to adopt a position of a higher 39.6% top marginal bracket, according to 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 back against Republican efforts to cut social programs such as food stamps. The Center for American Progress helped lead the charge against many of the changes pushed by Trump’s budget office, from new policies designed to make it harder for immigrants to secure government assistance to rules limiting government regulations. Her allies say that experience makes her almost uniquely well suited to rollback 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.”

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