An agitated President Obama accused congressional Republicans on Thursday of not standing up for ordinary Americans after the Senate derailed his nominee to head a new federal consumer protection agency.
At a brief news conference, the president charged that his Republican adversaries were not acting “on the level” after they blocked, by filibuster, his appointment of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“This makes no sense,” Obama declared. “Consumers across the country understand part of the reason we got into the financial mess we did is because regulators are not doing their jobs.”
Two days after signaling that he would make economic inequality a central pillar of his reelection effort, Obama seized the opportunity Thursday to restate his argument that Republicans were not acting in the interest of middle-class Americans.
By blocking Cordray’s nomination, Obama said, the GOP had shown itself to be more interested in winning leverage over him than in protecting consumers from “unscrupulous operators.” Obama proposed creation of the agency after the country’s financial meltdown three years ago as a way to enforce consumer regulations and monitor abuses.
Obama also said he would consider the controversial step of appointing Cordray when Congress adjourns next Friday for its holiday recess, during which it would not be empowered to block him.
“We are not giving up on this; we’ll keep on going at it,” Obama said.
Republican leaders suggested that they would seek to prevent a recess appointment by keeping the Senate technically in session throughout the holidays.
The confrontation was the latest sign of Obama’s eagerness to engage his opponents in an extended debate over economic fairness. The White House believes the issue resonates with voters along the populist lines of an Obama speech in Kansas this week that evoked the themes of Theodore Roosevelt.
But Republicans offered several reminders Thursday that they intend to challenge Obama’s vision of a path to economic prosperity at virtually every step. Senate Democrats and Republicans again failed to agree on a plan, championed by the president, to extend a payroll tax cut that is due to expire at year’s end. And House Republicans ignored Obama’s veto threat and included, in their own payroll tax cut proposal, a provision to approve the Keystone Pipeline, a cross-country oil pipeline that could create jobs. The administration has delayed the project on environmental grounds.
Though GOP lawmakers have praised Cordray’s qualifications — he is serving as the agency’s director of enforcement — they have pledged to prevent any candidate from being confirmed unless significant structural changes are made to the bureau.
Republicans want the director position replaced by a five-member commission and tighter oversight of the agency’s decisions by other regulatory bodies. They are also seeking to subject the agency to the congressional appropriations process; currently, it is funded through the Federal Reserve.
Noting those objections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Obama was pushing hard for Cordray anyway “because it fits into some picture he wants to paint about who the good guys and the bad guys are in Washington.”
White House officials rejected that characterization, noting that Obama was the one who pushed for the agency’s creation. Furthermore, the president argued at his news conference, Republicans have systematically sought to obstruct his political appointees, in most cases to win leverage they could use to win concessions in unrelated legislative matters.
“Well-qualified judges do not get a vote. Assistant secretaries to the Treasury get held up for no reason,” Obama said. Republicans “are trying to see if they can use that to reverse some sort of law that’s already been passed. That’s part of what gets the American people so frustrated. They do not think this is on the level.”
Senate Republicans on Tuesday filibustered Obama’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. On Thursday, by a vote of 53 to 45, Senate Democrats were unable to close off debate over Cordray’s appointment to allow the confirmation to proceed; 60 votes were needed to end a filibuster.
Only two of the 47 Republicans in the Senate did not vote to block Cordray’s confirmation. One was Olympia Snowe of Maine, who voted “present.” The other was Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who is facing the consumer agency’s original architect, Elizabeth Warren, in a 2012 Senate race.
Facing standoffs with Congress on several fronts, Obama vowed that he would delay his winter vacation — a 17-day trip to Hawaii set to begin Dec. 17 — and keep Congress in Washington until it agrees on plans to extend the payroll tax cut and provide continued benefits for the long-term unemployed.
“I know some of you might have been looking forward to a little sun and sand,” Obama told the White House press corps assigned to follow him, “but the bottom line is that we are going to stay here as long as it takes to make sure that the American people’s taxes don’t go up on January 1st, and to make sure that folks who desperately need unemployment insurance get that help. And there’s absolutely no excuse for us not getting it done.”
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.