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Who will police Wall Street and the nation's thanks in this second Obama term? That was the question before the Senate Banking Committee today as members grilled two of the president's nominees. Richard Cordray is slated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Mary Jo White is the president's pick to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports the tone in today's confirmation hearings was civil but still partisan.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Even before the hearing began, Richard Cordray faced vocal opposition. Last month, 43 Republican senators - all but two of them, in other words - sent a letter to President Obama saying they would oppose any nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho was one of them.
SENATOR MIKE CRAPO: The Dodd Frank Act specifically elevated the director of the CFPB so that he or she holds unique power to determine the agency's budget and mission priorities without any public debate or input from Congress.
NOGUCHI: Cordray is a former Ohio treasurer and state attorney general, who is now director because of a recess appointment. Republicans said their objection isn't personal, it's the structure of the agency Cordray heads that's the problem. But Democrats accused Republicans of throwing up barriers to their own laws. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: Mr. Chairman, we already had our fight over the structure of the CFPB. A bipartisan majority in the Senate created the CFPB in 2010 to help ensure that Americans have access to safe and transparent financial products and services, including credit cards and loans.
NOGUCHI: In a somewhat awkward moment, Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, put the question of agency structure to the other nominee at the table, Mary Jo White. White's prospective agency, the SEC, is governed by commissioners from both parties.
SENATOR BOB CORKER: Do you view having commissioners like this that represent different viewpoints hashing out a rule, do you view that as being a positive or a negative?
MARY JO WHITE: That's a tough question.
CORKER: That's a good question.
WHITE: It's a very good question. It's a very good question. I mean, clearly, the structure...
NOGUCHI: Backed into an answer, White called the commission structure wise. With little progress to be made over Cordray, the senators turned to questioning White. White is the only female U.S. attorney ever to head the high-profile Southern District of New York. And her reputation prosecuting mob bosses and terrorists elevated her legal stature far beyond her actual five-foot frame. Here, in his introduction, is New York Democrat Charles Schumer.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: She apparently indulged a fondness for motorcycle riding. And despite her physical stature was a fierce competitor in the women's basketball league in New York. The same toughness she showed playing basketball she will show as SEC chair.
NOGUCHI: White pledged to speed implementation of pending laws, including the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and small-business funding provisions of the JOBS Act, as well as modernizing the SEC to keep apace with new developments like high-frequency trading. But if most of the senators on both sides of the aisle complemented her record, there was also concern that either because of her past experience in private legal practice or because of her promises to consider the economic impacts of SEC policies, she would deem some banks too big to prosecute, or as one senator put it, too big to jail.
WHITE: There's no institution too big to charge. In the - on the criminal side, it's, you know, it's - they're also, in my view, from my former life, institutions are not too big to charge either.
NOGUCHI: Enforcement, White promised, would be a hallmark of her tenure at the SEC. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.