The Senate Banking Committee today approved the nomination of top White House economic adviser Ben S. Bernanke to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, recommending his confirmation to the full Senate.
If confirmed, Bernanke, 51, would replace long-serving Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, 79, who is retiring at the end of January after 18 years at the helm of the nation's central bank.
The 20-member committee approved the nomination by a voice vote in executive session, with only one dissenting "nay." The lone opponent was Sen Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Greenspan critic who complained that Bernanke has not demonstrated independence from the outgoing Fed chairman. Fourteen of the committee's members (eight Republicans and six Democrats) were present for the vote, a committee spokesman said.
The nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote that has not yet been scheduled. Bernanke, currently chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, is expected to win easy confirmation.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Banking Committee, said he was pleased that the panel had moved the nomination so expeditiously, according to Andrew Gray, a spokesman for the panel.
Today's vote came a day after Bernanke told the committee in a one-day hearing that he would make "continuity" with Greenspan's policies a top priority. A former economics professor at Princeton University, Bernanke served on the Fed's Board of Governors for nearly three years before taking the job as President Bush's top economic adviser in June.
In nominating Bernanke last month, Bush hailed his "intellectual rigor and integrity" and said he "commands deep respect in the global financial community."
But Bunning denounced the nomination the same day as "a shame," saying he opposed it even though he believed Bernanke "has the qualifications" to be Fed chairman. He said Bernanke previously had "promised me that he would not be a rubber stamp for Chairman Greenspan but an independent voice" on the Board of Governors. "Sadly, Dr. Bernanke never once cast a dissenting vote" during his tenure, Bunning said in a statement.
Bunning has criticized the Fed's interest rate hikes under Greenspan, notably after the recent hurricane devastation on the Gulf Coast. He has charged that Greenspan "is insensitive to America's working families."
In a statement explaining his vote today, Bunning said one of his biggest concerns is that the Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve "suffers from 'group think'" and that "no one ever challenges Chairman Greenspan." Unless Bernanke, in response to written questions, makes a persuasive case that he will be "an independent chairman," Bunning said, "I will not be able to support his nomination on the Senate floor."
In testimony before the Banking Committee yesterday, Bernanke pledged that if he is confirmed as Fed chairman, he would steer clear of "all political influences" and would continue to focus on controlling inflation.
Although he stressed continuity with Greenspan's policies, he expressed support for one key departure from them, saying he wants to set long-term targets for inflation.
Bernanke told the panel he would "bear the critical responsibility of preserving the independent and nonpartisan status of the Federal Reserve," a status he considers essential.
"I assure this committee that, if I am confirmed, I will be strictly independent of all political influences and will be guided solely by the Federal Reserve's mandate from Congress and by the public interest," he said.