Two of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees are slamming into confirmation hurdles on Capitol Hill, testing the White House’s ability to navigate a tenuous Senate majority amid deep partisan divisions in Washington.
Biden’s pick for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Neera Tanden, now appears unlikely to be confirmed after two Senate panels delayed business meetings to vote on her nomination Wednesday.
And Republicans are solidifying their opposition to Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D.N.M.), whose prospects were uncertain heading into Wednesday, received a significant boost later in the day when Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a key moderate Democrat, announced his support after previously declining to say whether he would vote for her.
The hurdles come despite a Democratic majority in the Senate following a pair of victories in Georgia’s runoff elections last month that created a 50-50 split, with Vice President Harris as the tie-breaking vote when needed.
Biden acknowledged disappointment with the pace of his confirmations in an exchange with reporters Wednesday, but he said the delayed transition slowed the process.
“I don’t so much blame it on the Senate, I blame it on the failure to have a transition that was rational,” Biden said. “We’re doing fine, I think we’re going to be in good shape.”
The confirmation challenges also underscore how fragile that Democratic majority can be, and how critical White House outreach to senators will be moving forward.
“I think we are committed to fighting for all of our nominees, to do all the outreach needed to answer questions, to address concerns anyone has, to reiterate the qualifications of all of the nominees the president has put forward and do due diligence in fighting for the team he’s nominated,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing with reporters Wednesday.
But multiple GOP senators who have voiced opposition to Tanden’s nomination said they had not heard from the White House, even months after she was announced as Biden’s choice for OMB director. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose committee has jurisdiction over her nomination, was not consulted before she was named.
White House officials pushed back on the idea that there had been insufficient coordination and outreach.
Psaki has said Tanden met with 44 senators. One official familiar with her confirmation efforts said the White House has emphasized the historic nature of her nomination and argued that Tanden’s difficult upbringing and government experience make her especially qualified for the role.
The White House has also highlighted Haaland’s historic nomination and her strong relationships with tribal groups, her familiarity with small-business owners and her bipartisan relationships, the official said.
Haaland’s path forward was closely watched as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and others dug in on their opposition, but Manchin’s support appears to pave the way for her confirmation.
“While we do not agree on every issue, she reaffirmed her strong commitment to bipartisanship, addressing the diverse needs of our country and maintaining our nation’s energy independence,” Manchin said in a statement.
The episode underscored the outsized influence moderates like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) carry in such a narrowly divided chamber, where one Democratic defection could derail a Cabinet nominee.
Becerra had met with at least 40 senators as of Monday, including members of both parties, the official said. The case for Becerra’s confirmation has centered around his work on health policy while in Congress and his managerial experience as California attorney general, where he focused on protecting consumers and patients from corporate abuses of power and defending the Affordable Care Act in court.
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino secretary of Health and Human Services at a time when people of color are disproportionately getting sick and dying of COVID-19.
Conservative groups have run ads questioning his experience for the role and urging senators to oppose his nomination. Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s regulations on health care, the environment and immigration, making him a target for pro-Trump lawmakers, especially those who hope to run for president in a few years.
Some supporters of the nominees have suggested that racism or sexism may be playing a role in opposition to the nominations.
“Let me say this, both Attorney General Becerra and I, throughout our careers, have been the only Latino in the room,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who introduced Becerra to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing.
“Sadly, Xavier and I are not unfamiliar with being held to different standards.”
Manchin, who previously announced he opposed Tanden due to her “overtly partisan statements,” said Wednesday that his opposition was not personal and had nothing to do with her gender.
“I just want to bring people together in a bipartisan way,” Manchin told reporters.
Manchin has not said whether he will support Becerra, who some Republicans and conservative groups have painted as an extremist on abortion with no relevant health care experience that would prepare him to lead one of the largest federal agencies.
Manchin’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which will eventually vote on Becerra’s nomination, told reporters this week he hasn’t heard any concerns from Democrats about the nominee.
But just one defection from a Senate Democrat on any of the three nominees would require GOP support for confirmation.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), considered a swing vote for Biden nominees, told Becerra on Tuesday during a Senate Health Committee hearing: “I think we can reach common ground on many issues” except for abortion.
Romney told reporters he is “still evaluating” Becerra but the nominations of Haaland and Tanden “present some real questions and challenges.”
Democrats are also watching GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), two moderates who have voted for some of Biden’s other nominees.
Neither senator has said how they will vote on the Becerra nomination, and their offices didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Collins and Murkowski didn’t raise any criticism of him or express any concerns during the Senate Health Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday, breaking with some of their Republican colleagues who sit on the panel.
While other Republicans have cited Becerra’s support for abortion rights as one of the reasons they won’t support him, Collins and Murkowski are the only Senate GOP members who say they support access to abortions.
Murkowski is also the only remaining independent-minded Republican who has not said how she plans to vote on Tanden; Biden would need at least one Republican to vote in her favor given Manchin’s stated opposition.
“Obviously, Lisa Murkowski would win major points with the president who will be there for the next four years -- and live up to her independent party label -- if she ends up voting for Neera Tanden, and that’s probably not lost on her,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
The confirmation process has been delayed and complicated as senators were forced to balance hearings with work on Biden’s coronavirus proposal and former President Trump’s impeachment trial. The Trump administration’s delay of the transition in November also impacted the confirmation process, Biden officials say.
The pace of confirmations has fallen behind that of former Presidents Trump, Obama and George W. Bush.
Some of Biden’s early nominees received considerable bipartisan support, and Democrats are pushing to quickly confirm more officials this week. William Burns, a career diplomat, appeared on the path to bipartisan confirmation for CIA director Wednesday as the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on his nomination.
“Controversy about some nominees is hardly a rare occurrence,” said William Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “Presidents have to nominate so many people and these politics are so thick and the divisions between Democrats and Republicans are so great, that invariably there are going to some that hit a snag.”