Team Biden taps Asian American groups to help save Tanden

Neera Tanden testifies during a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing on Capitol Hill.
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Anita Kumar
·6 min read
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President Joe Biden’s aides are urging Asian American groups to mount a last-minute campaign to try to rescue his budget chief nominee, Neera Tanden, as her prospects for Senate confirmation dwindle.

Those groups are calling and sending letters to Senate offices and advocating for Tanden on social media to try to combat what they are calling “structural racism” and “institutional racism.”

Their efforts have been actively encouraged by the White House and presidential transition staff, which remains in place to help with Senate confirmations, along with the Democratic National Committee, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

“It is incredibly frustrating to watch because we are talking about individuals who are preeminently qualified, but also coming from communities that have been screaming at the top of their lungs to be visible and valued by this country,” said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Tanden has seen her nomination stall in recent days amid opposition from senators of both parties. Objecting lawmakers have cited her partisan, personal tweets, including those that have gone after them individually. But Democrats and interest groups say she is being unfairly targeted because of her gender and race.

Many of the groups being asked to help rescue Tanden’s nomination had been backing her since late last year. But they — as well as prominent Indian Americans across the country — began to redouble their efforts Friday after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would oppose her confirmation, putting it in peril.

The groups are focused on three senators who have yet to declare their intentions: Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Budget Committee; Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate who sometimes breaks with her party; and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who sits on the Homeland Security Committee.

They are also reaching out to two long-shot senators, hoping to change their minds: Manchin and John Cornyn (R-Texas), who co-founded the Senate India Caucus, but this week called on Biden to withdraw Tanden’s nomination.

In addition to contacting Senate offices, groups have flooded social media using hashtags, such as #IStandWithNeera. A #YESNeera campaign that used the words “Yes to Progress Yes to Women Yes to AAPIs” reached more than 77.2 million people, according to the AAPI Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to mobilize Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters.

The push from the groups comes as a pair of Senate committees postponed votes on Tanden’s fate on Wednesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs one of those committees, conceded that the support was not yet there to confirm Tanden.

Should Tanden make it through the committees, her nomination would still need to pass through the full Senate. And Manchin’s opposition means that she would need at least one Republican to support her in order for that to happen. But Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, both moderate Republicans, also said they would oppose Tanden’s nomination.

“She is being held to a much higher standard, even though nobody disputes her background and qualifications to be OMB director,” said Shekar Narasimhan, AAPI Victory Fund chair. “It’s becoming apparent this higher standard applies primarily to nominees of color, and it particularly hurts with historic nominations like Neera’s.”

The White House has insisted that it still publicly supports Tanden, though some Democrats on Capitol Hill have already begun to support a possible replacement: Shalanda Young, the former clerk and staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.

But by Wednesday evening, even chief of staff Ron Klain, Tanden’s No. 1 champion within the White House, was acknowledging the reality of her plight.

"If Neera Tanden is not confirmed, she will not become the budget director, we will find some other place for her to serve in the administration that doesn't require Senate confirmation," Klain said on MSNBC.

The White House referred questions about the push by Asian Americans to the presidential transition. A transition official acknowledged the effort, saying it had been ongoing since December.

Asian Americans have been fuming for weeks that Biden failed to name a Cabinet secretary of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent, though he tapped two for Cabinet-level positions: Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and Katherine Tai to be U.S. trade representative. Asian Americans have served in presidential Cabinets, including Donald Trump’s, since 2000.

“We would like to see progress in having a seat at the table,” said Madalene Mielke, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies. “Cabinet-level appointments are important and at the same time, in the words of over 100 members of Congress, close to equal is not equal.”

Still, after Biden nominated Tanden, Asian Americans began to push for her confirmation and even urged Vice President Kamala Harris, herself the daughter of an Indian mother, to try to persuade her former colleagues in the Senate to support her.

Albert Shen, president of the Texas chapter of the Asian American Action Fund, called Tanden’s selection “a direct rebuke to the last four years of Trump’s Make America Great Again homogeneous policy agenda.”

A network of prominent Indian Americans with personal connections to Republican senators began to reach out to the lawmakers in December, urging them to meet with Tanden and give her a chance, according to a person familiar with the situation. “We’re trying to get her in the door,” the person said. “All we’re saying is taking a call, give her a fair hearing.”

A group of more than 50 Asian American businesses sent Cornyn a letter in early February urging him to support Tanden, citing the hate crimes toward Asian Americans following former President Donald Trumps’ demonization of China during the coronavirus pandemic.

Neil Makhija, executive director of IMPACT, an Indian American advocacy group, said his organization worked with the presidential transition to set up a meeting with Tanden after her nomination to ask how they could help. This week, IMPACT is drafting a letter to be sent to the leaders of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees touting the possibility of Tanden serving as the first woman of color and first South Asian American budget chief.

“Even as she achieves historic milestones at the highest levels of our government, Ms. Tanden has never forgotten where she came from: a South Asian immigrant family that relied on this country’s social safety net to survive,” according to a copy of the draft letter. “Going from a childhood of food stamps and Section 8 housing to public service in President Joseph R. Biden’s Cabinet, Neera Tanden has lived the full arc of this country’s promise.”