Growing intrigue over a trio of controversial presidential picks is also underscoring the power of individual senators such as Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, when the partisan balance is so evenly divided.
While Biden has seen blue-chip national security selections such as Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon installed, the focus on nominees whose portfolios touch on some of the most sensitive domestic political issues is bringing the confirmation process to a contentious crescendo.
It’s not at all unusual for new presidents to run into trouble with some nominees — or even to see several potential Cabinet members fall. Blocking a pick is one easy way for senators to flex their power and signal to a new White House that they can’t be taken for granted. And the policy clashes clouding the confirmation hopes of candidates such as Haaland and Tanden are quite predictable, since they mirror the chasms between the parties.
But when a president has a reasonable governing majority in the Senate, confirmations become easier. If Democrats had a handful of seats to spare, for instance, a senator such as Manchin, who must constantly judge the winds in his ultra-conservative state of West Virginia, could be given a pass.
But when nominations depend on a party-line vote and a tiebreaker cast by Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic leaders can’t offer any political cover — at least without some defections from GOP ranks.
For now, the problem concerns individual Cabinet nominees — whose defeat would sting for Biden and dent the bodywork of his governing machine. But in months to come, when it comes to sweeping and electorally radioactive issues such as climate change and immigration, his entire presidency will be on the line.
While the situation is fraught now, it is not out of the question that an illness, incapacitation or even death among elderly senators could erase his governing majority for good.
A nomination on the brink
Tanden’s struggles are characteristic of nominees who have issues stemming from their own political vulnerabilities but who also fall victim to wider political forces beyond their individual fates.
Still, Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, is in the slightly unique position of seeing her support fray on the right and the left — a scenario that led some observers to register surprise when she was nominated.
Republican senators profess they are offended over some of her now-deleted tweets that blasted the GOP and individual senators who she now needs to vote for her. Of course, it’s a little rich for Republicans to complain about anyone’s tweets after spending four years enabling a president whose social media vitriol left Tanden in the dust. And then there is the question of whether Tanden, a prominent female political figure born to Indian immigrant parents, is a victim of prejudicial double standards.
Still, hypocrisy is the grease that often makes the wheels go ’round in the Senate. And Tanden also has lukewarm support from her own side. She was forced to try to make up with Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, who now chairs the Budget Committee and would be her principal contact. Sanders’ supporters accused Tanden of being among Democratic elites who they believe stacked the party’s nominating race against him and in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. During her confirmation hearing, Tanden had to apologize for what Sanders complained were her “vicious” attacks on progressives.
Given her always-questionable prospects, there was not much incentive for a senator such as Manchin to support her. The West Virginian has backed the President’s nominees who have come up for full votes so far. And he voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his Senate impeachment trial — in what was an unpleasant choice since his home state overwhelmingly supports the ex-President.
So to safeguard his brand as a relatively independent voice, and to avoid being tarred as a rubber stamp for Biden, Manchin probably needed to make a stand somewhere. He explained that he could not support Tanden because she represented the kind of divisive politics that Biden wants to purge from Washington.
“I don’t know her, probably a very, very good person, just basically a little bit toxic right now,” Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill on Monday.
The senator from West Virginia is also emerging at a pivot point of…