(CNN) — The duels over the confirmation of Joe Biden’s chosen cabinet have suddenly turned ugly, sounding alarms about the suspenseful nature of a 50-50 tied Senate and bitter fights to get to the president’s ambitious agenda.
The growing intrigue over a trio of controversial presidential selections is also underscoring the power of individual senators like Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, when the party balance is so divided.
While Biden has seen his top national security picks such as Antony Blinken installed as secretary of state and Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, the focus on nominees whose portfolios touch some of the most sensitive national political issues is driving the process of confirmation to a contentious crescendo.
The nomination of Neera Tanden, Biden’s selected to head the Office of Management and Budget, is in grave jeopardy after Manchin jumped ship and a number of Republicans said they could not support her.
Another painful hearing is looming Tuesday for Interior Secretary candidate Deb Haaland, whose opposition to fossil fuels causes members of the Republican Party to call her extreme, in a showdown that could also prove uncomfortable for moderate Democrats.
And Xavier Becerra, chosen by the president to head the Department of Health and Human Services, has emerged as a cultural warfare lightning rod over his stance on abortion and Obamacare, a perennial dividing line between Republicans and Democrats.
It’s not unusual for new presidents to have trouble with some nominees, or even see multiple potential Cabinet members go down. Blocking a selection is an easy way for senators to exercise their power and signal to a new White House that it cannot take them for granted. And the political clashes that cloud the hopes of confirmation of nominees like Haaland and Tanden are quite predictable, reflecting the gulfs between the parties.
But when a president has a reasonable ruling majority in the Senate, confirmations become easier. If Democrats had a handful of seats to spare, for example, a senator like Manchin, who must constantly judge the winds in his ultra-conservative state of West Virginia, could get a pass.
But when the nominations hinge on a party line vote and a runoff cast by Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic leaders cannot offer any political coverage, at least without some defections from the Republican ranks.
For now, the issue concerns individual Cabinet nominees, whose defeat would hurt Biden and damage the bodywork of his ruling machine. But in the coming months, when it comes to radical and electorally radioactive issues like climate change and immigration, his entire presidency will be at stake.
While the situation is tense now, it is not unreasonable that illness, disability or even the death of elderly senators could erase their ruling majority forever.
LOOK: Biden’s internal and external challenges for Congress to pass his immigration reform, according to analyst
A nomination on the edge
Tanden’s struggles are characteristic of nominees who have problems stemming from their own political vulnerabilities, but who are also victims of broader political forces beyond their individual destinies.
Still, Tanden, the chair of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, is in the slightly unique position of seeing her support fray on the right and left, a scenario that led some observers to register surprise when it was nominated.
Republican senators profess they are offended by some of her now-deleted tweets that criticized the Republican Party and individual senators that she now needs to vote for her. Of course, it’s a bit excessive for Republicans to complain about anyone’s tweets after spending four years empowering a president whose social media vitriol left Tanden in the mud. And then there is the question of whether Tanden, a prominent female political figure born to Indian immigrant parents, is the victim of damaging double standards.
Yet hypocrisy is the fat that often turns the wheels in the Senate. And Tanden also has lukewarm support on his own side. She was forced to try to reconcile with Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is part of the Democrats, who now chairs the Budget Committee and would be her main contact. Sanders supporters accused Tanden of being among Democratic elites who believe they stacked the party’s nominative race against him and in favor of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. During his confirmation hearing, Tanden had to apologize for what Sanders he complained that they were “vile” attacks on progressives.
Given her always questionable prospects, there wasn’t much incentive for a senator like Manchin to support her. The West Virginia Senate has endorsed the president’s nominees who have so far obtained full votes. And he voted to convict former President Donald Trump at his impeachment in the Senate, in what was an unpleasant decision as his home state overwhelmingly supports the former president.
So, to safeguard his brand as a relatively independent voice, and to avoid being branded as a rubber stamp for Biden, Manchin probably needed to take a stand somewhere. He explained that he could not support Tanden because he 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 toxic at the moment,” Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill Monday.
The West Virginia senator is also emerging at a crucial point in the battle to pass Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion covid aid bill, which all Republicans are likely to oppose. He said Monday that he would seek to amend legislation to set a federal hourly minimum wage at $ 11 for two years, instead of the current Democratic proposal for an increase to $ 15 for five years.
Once Manchin broke with Tanden, and after a string of Republicans, including Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio, followed suit, his confirmation prospects turned truly dire, despite that the White House insisted he was with the national team on Monday.
“They’re going to have to get her out,” a senior Democratic senator told CNN’s Manu Raju. Tanden’s low hopes Monday night likely rested on Murkowski, who has yet to say how he will vote.
The Alaska Republican is an independent voice and voted to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial. But it’s hard to see how he would have an incentive to bail out an already deeply embattled Democratic cabinet nominee, especially with his own re-election race next year.
LEE: Third Economic Stimulus Check: What’s Included in the House Democrats’ Relief Plan
Power struggle over climate change
Haaland’s nomination differs from the Tanden case in that the New Mexico member of the House is very popular with most Democrats. Her nomination is historic as she would be the first member of the Native American cabinet. He would also lead the Department of the Interior, an agency with a long history of discrimination against his community.
Democrats and White House officials told CNN on Monday they anticipate a tense few hours when Haaland appears before the Energy and Natural Resources Commission on Tuesday.
And guess who might be the Senate’s key voice on the panel and in the Senate floor on Haaland’s prospects? Manchin again, who chairs the commission and has not yet pledged to support his nomination.
“We are very open to hearing it, and we hope it has a good audience,” Manchin, a supporter of the fossil fuel industries in his home state, said Monday.
Haaland risks becoming the focal point of Republican attacks on Biden’s new commitment to America’s fight against global warming, which led him to swiftly join the Paris climate accord after taking office.
In the past, Haaland has opposed the issuance of new oil and gas drilling leases on federal land and has expressed support for a ban on fracking, a method of extracting natural gas. He has also supported the New Green Deal, the ambitious climate plan promoted by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, though not by the Biden administration.
The New Green Deal has been targeted by Republican attacks on the grounds that its restrictions on fossil fuels would destroy the American economy. Tuesday’s hearing is likely to become a preview of the bitter partisan battles that will likely unfold when Biden sends an environmental bill to Capitol Hill.
LOOK: “It’s a shame that climate change has been so politicized in the US” says New York Times columnist
An audience … finally
Not all of Biden’s nominees got into trouble Monday.
The selection that waited the longest for a confirmation hearing – nearly five years, to be exact – is Attorney General Merrick Garland. The former president of the Washington Circuit Court of Appeals was nominated by President Barack Obama to be a Supreme Court Justice, but was blocked for months by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in a power play that paved the way for the current conservative majority at court.
Ironically, the reputation for restraint and steadfast temperament that Obama thought could ease Garland’s path through a Republican-led Senate to superior court helped him at his confirmation hearing Monday.
Arch-disruptive Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Monday that he would “very likely” support the nomination.