After a couple of weeks of trying to scrounge up votes that weren’t there, Neera Tanden, President Biden’s nominee for Director of the Office of Management and Budget, withdrew herself from consideration Tuesday night.
“Unfortunately, it now seems clear that there is no path forward to gain confirmation,” Tanden wrote in a letter to Biden, “and I do not want continued consideration of my nomination to be a distraction from your other priorities.”
Tanden is President Biden’s first nominee not to win Senate confirmation, and the first Cabinet-level nominee felled by rude tweets, primarily—but not exclusively—those targeted at Republican senators. Tanden, who spent the Trump administration consistently rattling off digs at the Senate Republican conference, was dogged with questions about those tweets during her confirmation hearings. The 1,000 or so tweets she deleted ahead of her confirmation only called more attention to the habit. While she offered perfunctory apologies to those Republican senators whom she’d targeted, it wasn’t expected that she’d need any of their votes.
Until she did. In mid-February, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced he would oppose Tanden, arguing that her “her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget.” That announcement took both the White House and Senate Democratic leaders by surprise. It meant that Tanden did, after all, need a Republican vote. Maine Sen. Susan Collins wouldn’t provide it, saying that Tanden “has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, no moderate on fiscal issues, wouldn’t either.
The last week, then, was spent with everyone wondering what Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was up to. She was still—as of 6:30 on Tuesday night—telling reporters that she hadn’t made up her mind. As she played coy, whispers abounded about what the canny legislator, who had been deeply upset with the Biden administration’s freeze on oil and gas leasing on federal lands in Alaska, might be trying to secure with her vote. As Senate Republican Whip John Thune told reporters this week, she wanted to get the White House’s “attention on some things that are important to her state. And she’s got, as any senator does, particularly through the nomination process, quite a bit of leverage to do that.”
Murkowski clarified on Tuesday that she wasn’t asking for a straight-up trade on confirming Tanden in exchange for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. “I’m not asking the administration to make any accommodations to me or to Alaska for Tanden’s nomination,” she told reporters. She just wanted to educate Tanden about Alaska’s “unique” situation, because Tanden, in her words, was “not familiar with Alaska.” Well, at least now she’s familiar with Alaska.
If Murkowski had supported Tanden’s nomination, the White House and Senate Democratic leadership likely could’ve strung together 49 Democratic votes to push it through on a 50-50 vote with a Vice President Harris tiebreaker. But the support was still soft on the Democratic side beyond Manchin. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s had a hostile relationship with Tanden in the past, still was publicly undecided on her nomination. So was Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. The former chairs one of the committees overseeing Tanden’s nomination, the latter is the swing vote on the other committee. Neither committee ever voted on her nomination. (Meanwhile, the Budget Committee hearing for Tanden’s would-have-been deputy at OMB, Shalanda Young, went swimmingly Tuesday morning. She’s now the odds-on favorite to be promoted up to OMB director.)
Tanden’s nomination was a misread from the Biden team. It underestimated her toxicity among Republicans, who want to pick off a nominee here or there, and the misgivings from critical Democrats on opposite poles of the caucus’ ideological spectrum. Once Manchin announced his opposition, Republicans had no reason to do Democrats a favor by saving her.
But Tanden won’t have to return to her ho-hum job as a simple, country president of a major liberal Washington D.C. think tank. President Biden, in his statement accepting Tanden’s withdrawal, said that he looks “forward to having her serve in a role in my Administration. She will bring valuable perspective and insight to our work.” There’s a whole constellation of big-shot administration jobs that don’t require Senate confirmation, and Tanden will get one of them. A few transition team calls to Capitol Hill this past fall could’ve landed her one of those jobs in the first place, and spared the embarrassment of this confirmation process.