Partisan divide spells defeat for Obama nominee

By Jim Abrams

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 8 2011 7:59 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau established in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse faces almost certain defeat in the Senate, the victim of a particularly nasty partisan fight that could spill over into next year's presidential campaign.

Few question former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray's credentials for the job. But nearly all of the Senate's 47 Republicans are expected to vote against him Thursday, maintaining a GOP filibuster that requires 60 votes to break.

"This is not about the nominee, who appears to be a decent person and may very well be qualified," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "It's about a process that is running out of control."

The agency, which officially opened in July, is designed to protect consumers taking out loans, using credit cards and making other financial transactions.

Republicans say it was constructed with far too much power and far too little accountability, and 45 of the Senate Republicans have signed a letter to Obama saying they would vote against any nominee to head the agency unless changes are made in its structure.

They want the director replaced by a bipartisan board and Congress to have control over its purse strings rather than the Federal Reserve. They also want to make it easier for other financial regulatory offices to overrule bureau decisions.

The White House has launched a vigorous counterattack. Last Sunday, White House officials said they would give briefings and interviews to journalists from seven states to pressure Senate Republicans from those states to vote for Cordray.

Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, one of the targeted states, said she voted for the financial overhaul act last year but "I am completely opposed to appointing a nominee to head this bureau until we correct the very serious structural flaws" in it.

On Tuesday, in a major policy speech in Kansas, Obama chastised Republicans for refusing to confirm his nominee. "Why? Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?" he asked.

Obama pledged to "veto any effort to delay or defund or dismantle the new rules that we put in place" with last year's financial overhaul law.

Even if Republicans continue to filibuster the nomination, "we will never sign onto attempts to permanently gut this agency," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday. "This is going to be a bellwether issue, not just today but throughout 2012 and into the campaign."

Four of the 37 state attorneys general who endorsed Cordray earlier this year appeared Wednesday at the White House on his behalf, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin warned at a White House briefing that delay confirming Cordray could affect millions of Americans.

Under law, the agency must have a director before it can begin to oversee non-bank lenders, debt collectors, credit reporting agencies and student loan providers. Without a director, Wolin said, "millions of American people will remain vulnerable to some of the same regulatory gaps that helped to create the financial crisis."

He also disputed the argument that the agency lacks accountability, saying it must consult with other bank regulators before issuing rules, has to assess the effect of its rules on small businesses and can have its rules overturned by the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

Responding to GOP demands that Congress control the agency's purse strings, Wolin said no federal bank regulators have congressionally appropriated funds. "And the reason for that is we want to make sure that our bank regulators are free of political influence."

Already this year, one committee in the GOP-led House has voted to slice $200 million from the White House request for the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has a major enforcement role. And the full House has voted to hold the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees derivatives, to $171 million, less than two-thirds of what Obama sought.

Republicans accused the White House of stonewalling. Since Republicans wrote their letter to Obama last May "outlining some very serious and very reasonable concerns about it, he hasn't done a thing to address these concerns, not a thing," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Cordray, a five-time "Jeopardy" champion, has recently been serving as the agency's enforcement chief. Obama nominated him to be its first director in July, bypassing Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University law professor and consumer advocate who was instrumental in conceiving and setting up the agency.

Warren, who drew sharp opposition from Republicans who considered her too much of an activist, is running for a Senate seat against Massachusetts incumbent Scott Brown, the only Republican to come out in support of Cordray.

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