The reeling nomination of Neera Tanden as White House budget director is highlighting the crucial early battles on Capitol Hill that will shape the future of the Biden presidency, the terrain of the midterm elections and the fate of the Republican Party.
Two Senate committees overseeing Tanden’s nomination postponed votes on Wednesday on whether to move her candidacy to the full chamber. The White House insisted it would not fold on trying to get her confirmed but her path forward – amid controversy about her past tweets slamming Republicans – is looking increasingly impossible. Aides to Joe Biden know this first big fight over a key nominee will help set the terms of the new President’s relationship with Congress.
The controversy shows how after four years of politics by tweeted decree in the Trump era, normal service is resuming inside the Beltway in all its brutal, hypocritical, and high-stakes glory as everyone with power tries to wield it to set the tone for the coming years. Other bitter confirmation hearings are turning into early de-facto fights on the great issues of the Biden era, like climate change and expanding access to health care.
Republicans are meanwhile beginning to mobilize against Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid rescue package in the hope of billing it as an example of massive liberal overreach and winning a political payoff. Yet they are making a significant gamble. If Biden pulls the country out of the pandemic with the help of the bill – that is currently popular – the GOP will look mean and irresponsible.
The Covid relief plan is meanwhile stretching the papered over unity observed by Democrats in their election-year zeal to beat Donald Trump, with a split widening over including a minimum wage hike in the huge plan.
The internal Democratic tussle begs many questions, including, when will Biden step in and impose his authority? How fair is he willing to appease moderate Democrats who want a watering down of some aspects of the package? And would any Democrat – however infuriated they might be over compromises made to either the right or the left – dare to break with their new President on the test of his power in a 50-50 Senate?
The Republican Party is even more divided than Democrats. While some senators like Mitt Romney are working through principled objections to Biden’s policies and nominees, Trump loyalists like Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Ron Johnson are performing for their watching leader in exile and, perhaps more critically, his base of supporters. They are forcing their party into what may turn into a four-year fight over Trump’s lies about an election he lost.
The traumatic reality of Trump’s legacy again reverberated through the US Capitol on Tuesday in a hearing that probed security failures exposed when the mob he told to “fight like Hell” invaded the corridors of power.
“These criminals came prepared for war,” said former US Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund.
Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress has fallen foul of Republicans upset by her outspoken tweets and some progressives like Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders with whom she sparred as a senior aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. After West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat walking a tightrope over his deeply conservative state, said he couldn’t back Tanden, her prospects of confirmation appeared bleak. But the White House is not yet willing to fold and is searching for a Republican to get Tanden over the line.
The White House is not pulling Tanden’s nomination for now.
“Neera Tanden is a leading policy expert who brings critical qualifications to the table during this time of unprecedented crisis,” press secretary Jen Psaki told CNN after the vote was postponed.
“She also has important perspective and values, understanding firsthand the powerful difference policy can make in the lives of those going through hard times. She has a broad spectrum of support, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to labor unions, and has a strong record of working with both parties that we expect to grow in President Biden’s cabinet as the first South Asian woman to lead OMB.”
Another under pressure Biden nominee, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who would become the first Native American Cabinet member if she makes it to the Interior Department, faced fierce attacks from Republicans during her confirmation hearing Tuesday.
The GOP, with a clear eye on midterm elections that are usually tough for first-term presidents, is driving a case that Biden’s climate policies – including a pause on new leases for oil and gas extraction on federal lands – are a massive job killer.
“Why not just let these workers keep their jobs?” Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso asked Haaland, as part of an emerging strategy by Republicans to leverage the hearings to highlight their own policy goals.
Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell captured the underlying dynamic of the hearing. “I almost feel like your nomination is this proxy fight for the future of fossil fuels,” she told Haaland.
In a fresh sign of tensions inside the Democratic Party, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a standard bearer for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, rebuked Manchin after his office said he had “remaining questions” for Haaland, noting that the West Virginian voted to confirm Trump’s first Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who she called “openly racist.”
“Yet the 1st Native woman to be Cabinet Sec is where Manchin finds unease?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
In another hearing, Romney pressed Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, Xavier Becerra, on another defining disagreement between the parties: abortion.
“I raised a question about partial birth abortion that he chose not to answer. That is obviously a concern,” Romney said, raising additional concerns about Haaland and Tanden.
The hearings also reflected another dominant theme of the new administration. While there is fierce debate over their credentials, the ethnicity of Tanden, an Indian American, Haaland, a Native American, and Becerra, who is Hispanic, reflect the diversity at the heart of Biden’s administration.
Looming clash over Covid package
Elsewhere in the Capitol on Tuesday, Republican senators worked through the intricacies of the budget procedure known as reconciliation, which Democrats plan to use to ease the Covid rescue bill past filibuster attempts.
At their weekly conference lunch, the GOP caucus also strategized on how to challenge Democratic unity during debate on the package, CNN’s Lauren Fox reported. In one possible troublemaking maneuver that would double as points on the board ahead of congressional elections in November 2022, Romney and Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton are working on a plan to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour on condition that there are mandatory requirements on business to discourage the hiring of undocumented migrants.
Their gambit followed Manchin’s proposal to hike the rate to $11 per hour over two years. Neither suggestion is likely to be acceptable to progressive Democrats who are seeking to include a $15 per hour minimum wage in the Covid rescue plan. This could all be academic – at least for now – since both sides are waiting from a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian on whether including minimum wage changes is allowed under reconciliation rules.
The White House added to the sense of uncertainty on Tuesday by refusing to say whether Biden would sign a bill that included the $11 an hour figure.
“The President proposed $15 because that’s what he thinks is right for American workers,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Tugs of war over economic policy and the shape of relief legislation – and ideological fault line issues like abortion – are necessary features of the adversarial democratic process. But some Republicans, who abetted the ex-President’s assault on America’s political system fraud, can’t break the habit
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who led the charge in the Senate to stop Biden’s legitimate election win, tried to re-up Trump’s misleading claims that Biden wanted to “defund the police” during a hearing on the nomination of attorney general designate Merrick Garland on Monday.
Hawley hit back Tuesday at reporters who asked whether he was complicit in the riot after challenging Biden’s election win. “I would say that’s absolutely outrageous and an utter lie and no one I think who knows any of the facts alleges any such thing,” he said.
Also in the Garland hearing, Texas Sen. Cruz complained about the politicization of the Justice Department during the Obama administration, ignoring former Attorney General William Barr’s role in acting almost as Trump’s personal attorney during the previous administration.
And Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of Trump’s favorite senators, on Tuesday used the Senate hearing into the insurrection to imply on the thinnest of evidence that the rioters who desecrated the Capitol were not Trump supporters at all, in referring to an article that suggested that security forces might have overreacted to the violence.