Foreign currency auditor candidate Saule Omarova (R) speaks to an adviser as she speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Jan.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
WASHINGTON – A nomination hearing for the election of President Joe Biden as the currency's auditor, Saule Omarova, got fiery Thursday as Democrats and Republicans attacked each other over the candidate's unconventional academic work and upbringing in the former Soviet Union.
Omarova's nomination as one of the country's top banking regulators remains uncertain amid stiff opposition from the GOP and skepticism from moderate Democrats, including Montana Senator Jon Tester.
The primary concern of Republicans and a handful of Democrats is Omarowa's writings as a legal scholar contemplating far-reaching changes in the US banking system.
The Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee opened the hearing with a review of Cornell University's law professor's studies. They questioned ideas she's explored to bolster the power of the Federal Reserve and effectively concession community banks as a threat to the future of the US financial system.
Senior GOP member, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, began by claiming that Omarowa's ideas were "devastating" community banks.
"Taken together, their ideas are akin to a socialist manifesto for American financial services," Toomey said in his opening address.
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In a recent article, the Cornell University law professor examines the idea of taking consumer deposits away from community banks and parking them with the Federal Reserve. Community banks would then be paid by the US government to operate ATMs and otherwise act as local liaison on behalf of the Fed.
Senator Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Said he concurred with Toomey, adding that he was "concerned" with her nomination and views that are hostile to the community banks.
The Auditor regulates approximately 1,200 banks with total assets of around $ 14 trillion, or two-thirds of the entire US banking system. Its agents work with major banks to ensure lenders comply with federal laws and ensure fair access to financial services and otherwise review bank management.
If confirmed to head the auditor's office, an independent bureau of the Treasury, Omarova would be the first woman, immigrant and person of color to hold that role.
Omarova countered Shelby with the important role local banks played in stimulating small businesses and how she felt when she opened her first U.S. checking account in 1991.
"Holding a checkbook in hand was a symbol of economic freedom and autonomy," she said, compared to her childhood in Kazakhstan when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Despite the GOP's focus on its academic work, Omarova insists that these writings are purely theoretical and should be seen in the context of an ongoing debate among scholars. She also protested the Republicans' efforts to portray them as an anti-bank.
"If I am confirmed to head the auditor's office, my top priority will be to ensure a fair and competitive market where small and medium-sized banks, investing in their neighbors' homes, and small businesses can thrive," said she said in opening remarks.
If confirmed, she later said, the community banks would "have no better ally than me".
"I know the difference between the job of an academic and the freedom that academics have in researching ideas … and the job of a regulator, which is very restricted," she told CNBC on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen whether their recent comments are enough to convince Democrats and Testers alike, who have yet to decide whether to support Omarova. Other centrist Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are also reportedly unsure whether they will support Biden's election to lead the currency's auditor.
Ranking member Pat Toomey (R-PA) questioned the candidate as auditor of the currency Saule Omarova when she was on 18.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
When asked whether her comments on Thursday pushed him for or against her candidacy, Tester told reporters that he "will summarize what we've heard".
"I'll probably have an explanation later," he added. "I don't know about today, but it will be soon."
Omarova's supporters say her candidacy is tainted by discrimination based on her place of birth.
A tense moment came just before 11 p.m. ET when Senator John Kennedy, R-La. Omarova asked about her membership in a communist youth group during her childhood in Kazakhstan.
Omarova replied that membership in the Communist Party was required under the totalitarian government, pointing out that members of her family were murdered by the Communist Party led by Joseph Stalin.
Committee chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, cut Kennedy's questioning as personal and irrelevant to her candidacy, a rare move that sparked protests from the Republican at the end of his allotted time.
"I struggle with what to call them," said Kennedy. "I don't know whether to call her" Professor "or" Comrade "."
These comments were quickly rejected by Democrats such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who described such attacks on Omarova as "malicious". Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., Added that he was "worried" by the personal nature of the criticism.
But the Democrats weren't the only ones to disavow the focus on Omarowa's birthplace. Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said he had "great" concerns about their political positions but no concerns about their upbringing.
"For someone who lost family members in their youth, for someone who grew up in Russia, I would think that some of the decisions Dr. Omarova made back then had just as much to do with survival." like everything else, "he said." I have no concern about where she's from: you can't choose where you were born and you chose the greatest nation in the world to be a citizen. "