WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is promising to be accountable to Congress and is playing down the lawsuits his agency will be able to file against banks and other financial institutions.
Even so, Richard Cordray's chances of winning Senate approval to lead the agency remained uncertain. Republicans have promised to block any nominee to head the agency unless the bureau is changed in ways they say will make it more accountable. Democrats say those changes would weaken its powers.
In remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing Tuesday with the Senate Banking Committee, Cordray said his experience as former Ohio attorney general taught him that litigation can be slow, costly and unnecessarily acrimonious. He said he would use lawsuits "judiciously," and noted that the bureau has other powers to resolve problems, including issuing rules, writing reports and examining large banks and many nonbank institutions.
"Enforcement, of course, will still have an important role at the consumer bureau," he said.
In a bid to reach out to Republicans, Cordray also said that if confirmed, "I promise that you will have one person who will always be accountable to you for how we are carrying out the laws laid down by Congress and I will be eager to hear your thoughts about how we should do our work."
Banking panel Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., took a more combative tack, using his prepared opening remarks to accuse Republicans of holding Cordray's nomination hostage and hurting consumers.
"The misleading claim of no CFPB accountability — drummed up by special interests and put forth by a vocal minority — should be exposed for what it is: An attempt to destroy the bureau's ability to do its job of protecting American consumers," Johnson said.
The committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, said in his prepared comments that the White House and Senate Democrats have failed to work with them to revamp the bureau.
"It may be good politics for them, but it is certainly bad policy for the American people," Shelby said.
Though Democrats control the Senate, 44 of the chamber's Republicans have said they will oppose any nominee without a revamping of the bureau that would include replacing the director with a bipartisan commission and giving Congress direct power over its budget. Democrats in the 100-member Senate can only count on 53 votes to end delaying tactics — seven short of the 60 needed to do so.
In a statement on Monday, Shelby reiterated that stance: "No accountability, no confirmation."
The new bureau, which began functioning in July, was created after the financial crisis of three years ago. The bureau was part of the market regulation overhaul that President Barack Obama pushed through Congress last year over solid GOP opposition. It is designed to protect consumers taking out loans, using credit cards and making other financial transactions.
Obama appointed Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, a longtime consumer advocate, to help set up the agency. But facing staunch Republican opposition, he never nominated her to head it despite lobbying on her behalf by liberals and consumer groups.
Hoping to bolster Cordray's chances, five state treasurers — all Democrats — released a letter Monday that they sent last week to Shelby and banking committee chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., supporting Cordray, a former Ohio treasurer.
"Rich understands that sober, conservative and even-handed fiscal management produces the best financial results over the long term," they wrote.