March 4, 2024

The Senate Finance Committee voted Tuesday to forward former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley toward commissioner of the Social Security Administration, nudging President Biden’s pick to a confirmation vote before the full Senate.

The panel voted 17-10 in favor of the nomination after outlining a laundry list of challenges for Mr. O’Malley to tackle.

“Long wait times, mile-long ribbons of red tape and a very challenged, if not beleaguered, workforce,” committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said.

Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Thom Tillis of North Carolina joined Democrats in advancing Mr. O’Malley’s nomination.

The Social Security Administration processes and doles out retirement, disability, survivor and family benefits, and it enrolls people in Medicare. It also provides Social Security numbers, a key government identifier for people.

Mr. O’Malley, testifying at a recent confirmation hearing, pledged to oversee a major modernization at the Social Security Administration, calling the agency’s current level of customer service “unacceptable” as it processes benefits for a growing elderly population with limited staff.

“As a mayor, I learned there is no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole,” he told the committee.

Mr. O’Malley served two terms as Baltimore mayor before his governorship from 2007 to 2015.

He leveraged that resume into a White House bid in 2016 but was overshadowed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her main foe, Sen. Bernard Sanders.

Mrs. Clinton lost in the general election to Republican Donald Trump.

Mr. Biden nominated Mr. O’Malley to lead the Social Security Administration in July, citing his embrace of data-driven technology during his time as governor and mayor.

“I saw the results firsthand when we worked together during my time as vice president,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “As governor, he made government work more effectively across his administration and enhanced the way millions of people accessed critical services.”

At his confirmation hearing, Mr. O’Malley cast himself as technocratic-minded and ready to focus on getting the agency to answer calls, speed up appeals and make the right payments on time so Americans get what they were promised.

Mr. Biden has pledged to preserve Social Security for millions of beneficiaries amid lingering questions about management and the program’s ability to remain solvent. The defense of entitlement programs might be a key issue in the 2024 presidential campaign.

Mr. Biden fired Andrew Saul as Social Security commissioner in 2021. Mr. Saul was a holdover from the Trump administration who refused to resign. The president appointed Kilolo Kijakazi as the acting commissioner. 

Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Republican, lauded Mr. O’Malley for making customer service a top priority. But the senator said he could not support the nomination after Mr. Biden decided to oust Mr. Saul instead of letting him serve a full, six-year term.
Mr. Crapo said it set a bad precedent that future presidents might follow.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.