The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP senator suggests Soviet upbringing of Biden’s pick for top bank regulator indicates Communist loyalty

“I don’t know whether to call you ‘professor’ or ‘comrade,’” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (La.) told Saule Omarova, Biden’s nominee to serve as Comptroller of the Currency. She says her family suffered under Communism.

President Biden’s currency comptroller nominee Saule Omarova defended herself from charges of communism by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) on Nov. 18. (Video: C-SPAN)

The debate over President Biden’s pick to serve as a top banking regulator turned bitter Thursday morning as Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee clashed over the nominee’s youth in Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan.

Saule Omarova, nominated to serve as Comptroller of the Currency, faces a difficult path to confirmation. The Cornell University law professor and Wall Street critic is confronting probable unanimous opposition from Senate Republicans and has drawn skepticism from some moderate Democrats for recent policy positions she has staked out, including in papers exploring structural reforms to the banking system.

But her confirmation hearing erupted into partisan sniping Thursday over her biography, after Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) suggested Omarova may harbor loyalties to the Communist ideology of the regime that brutalized her family.

“I don’t know whether to call you ‘professor’ or ‘comrade,’” Kennedy told Omarova, after pressing her to produce a letter of resignation from a Soviet youth group to which she was required to belong when she was a girl.

“Senator, I’m not a Communist,” Omarova said. “I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.”

She said her family “suffered under the Communist regime. I grew up without knowing half of my family. My grandmother herself escaped death twice under the Stalinist regime. This is what’s seared in my mind. That’s who I am. I remember that history. I came to this country. I’m proud to be an American.”

Omarova earned an undergraduate degree from Moscow State University before emigrating to the U.S. in 1991 and continuing her studies. She earned a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a law degree from Northwestern University. She then worked at Davis Polk & Wardwell, a top New York firm, where she focused on corporate transactions and advising financial industry clients on regulation. She also served in the Treasury Department of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration as a special adviser on regulatory policy.

If confirmed, Omarova would be the first woman, the first immigrant and the first person of color to lead the 158-year-old agency.

Kennedy’s line of questioning prompted a rare interruption from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who chairs the committee. Brown said Omarova renounced her Soviet citizenship. Kennedy protested Brown’s interjection, calling it a violation of “senatorial courtesy.” Brown replied that “senatorial courtesy is also not doing character assassination.”

Other Republicans on the banking panel said they want to keep the focus on Omarova’s recent work, which Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), the top Republican on the committee, called radical. “Taken in their totality, her ideas do amount to a socialist manifesto for American financial services,” he said in his opening remarks.

Minutes before Kennedy made his comments, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) applauded Republicans for focusing on Omarova’s policy positions. “I keep hearing my friends on the other side refer to personal attacks,” Scott said. “One thing I can say and be very proud of on this committee from these Republicans: Not a single person has talked about anything other than your stated positions as it relates to this nomination.”

But the partisan fireworks during the hearing are likely less consequential to her fate than the decision-making by a pair of moderate Democrats on the panel. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) both said they were concerned by Omarova’s criticism of legislation they helped craft in 2018 to ease the regulatory burden on regional banks.

Omarova said she believes the law may have “indirectly” helped big banks. Warner said he “very much” disagreed with that characterization. If Republicans hang together in opposing Omarova’s nomination, a single Democratic defection would sink it.