WASHINGTON - The battle over the future of a new financial-watchdog office escalated Thursday, with Senate Republicans blocking confirmation of the man President Obama named to head the office and Obama countering by raising the possibility of appointing the nominee when Congress is in recess.
Senate Republicans were nearly unanimous in voting to stop a former Ohio attorney general, Richard Cordray, from becoming director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which they said had too much power and too little accountability.
Without a director, the agency designed to shield consumers from the excesses behind the 2008 financial crisis can't operate at full strength.
Republicans said that until the Obama administration agrees to changes, they will keep blocking the president's pick from taking charge.
Obama said immediately after the vote that there was no reason to deny Cordray the top spot. He did not rule out a recess appointment, whereby a president makes a temporary appointment to a government post when Congress is not in session. Under such a move, an appointee can serve until the close of the next session of Congress, which would be the end of 2012.
"Cordray and consumer protection are being blocked simply because Republicans want to protect Wall Street," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).
The vote to overcome the GOP filibuster was 53-45, seven short of the 60 needed to advance the nomination. One Republican, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, joined Democrats in support of Cordray. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R., Maine) voted "present."
While the agency officially began business in July, the deadlock limits what it can do. It can oversee current bank regulations. But without a director, it cannot issue new rules dealing with entities beyond banks, such payday lenders, private student-loan providers, and mortgage servicers that have been the source of predatory lending practices.
The agency was a centerpiece of the financial overhaul signed into law last year. Republicans largely opposed that legislation and have since sought to change some provisions.
There's no disagreement, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R., Ala.), about the need to bolster consumer protection. "The only real point of contention is whether the new bureau of consumer financial protection will be accountable to the American people," said Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
In May almost every GOP senator signed a letter to Obama vowing to oppose any bureau nominee until changes were made in its operation.
They're pushing to replace the director with a bipartisan board. They want to subject the bureau, now under the Federal Reserve's jurisdiction, to the congressional appropriations process. They favor giving more banking regulators authority to overrule agency decisions.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, at a White House briefing Wednesday, disputed the argument that the agency lacked accountability. He said it must consult with other bank regulators before issuing rules, must assess the effect of its rules on small businesses, and can have its rules overturned by the Financial Stability Oversight Council.
Wolin said no federal bank regulators have congressionally appropriated dollars. "The reason for that is we want to make sure that our bank regulators are free of political influence," he said.