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Biden OCC nominee Omarova set for rocky Senate hearing as GOP protests her

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Saule Omarova

United States Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs

WASHINGTON— Saule Omarova, President Joe Biden’s pick to be one of the nation’s top bank regulators, is expected to face a tough round of questioning Thursday morning from senators concerned by her research that explores fundamental changes to the financial industry.

The Cornell University law professor is scheduled to appear before the Senate Banking Committee, where Republicans and at least one Democrat are likely to pepper the administration’s choice to be the comptroller of the currency.

Lawmakers are all but certain to grill Omarova over unconventional ideas she’s advocated, including magnifying the power of the Federal Reserve to include consumer banking and sweeping checks to the power of the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

While Republicans, including Ranking Member Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, have long warned against recommending a candidate whose academic work calls to “end banking as we know it,” she has also faced skepticism from Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana.

Just one Democratic defection on a committee vote to recommend her to the broader Senate would likely end her nomination. And, even if she were to advance to the Senate with the committee’s endorsement, a single “nay” vote from Democratic ranks could doom her appointment.

Testimony is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning in Washington.

As one of the nation’s top bank watchdogs, the comptroller regulates about 1,200 banks with total assets of around $14 trillion, or two-thirds of the entire U.S. banking system. Its representatives work with big banks to ensure lenders are abiding by federal law, providing fair access to financial services and otherwise examining bank management.

Omarova has drawn fierce opposition from both the GOP and banking industry lobbyists, who say her ideas promote an excessive role for the government that would hurt business at lenders large and small.

“Dr. Omarova would relegate community banks to ‘pass through’ entities that hold their deposits on behalf of the Federal Reserve, effectively eliminating the community banking model,” American Bankers Association President Rob Nichols said in October. “We respectfully—but strenuously—disagree with those positions and believe they are out of step with the role for which she is being considered.”

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Asked about that characterization, Omarova said in an interview that her academic works are just that: Exploratory and theoretical.

“I am not a caricature that I often see when I see coverage of myself,” she said via video chat Tuesday afternoon. “I know that difference between the job of an academic, and the freedom that academics have in terms of exploring ideas … and the job of a regulator, which is very circumscribed.”

“There is a statutory mandate for the agency, there is a specific toolkit, there are goals that Congress has set for the agency,” she added. “The key that’s missing in all of these discussions is my understanding of that critical difference.”

Her supporters, including Banking Chairman Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, say warnings from the industry and Republicans are misguided, unfairly paint her as anti-bank and fail to acknowledge her decades of experience in banking law.

“More than 70 financial regulatory experts from across the political spectrum, including many former bankers, have endorsed her nomination,” Brown’s opening statement reads. “From growing up in the Soviet Union, to escaping to build a new life here, to enduring this last month of personal attacks with dignity, Ms. Omarova has demonstrated the strength and independence she’ll need to be an be a fair, impartial, and tough Comptroller.”

Omarova has explained that many of her academic papers were motivated by her interest to protect American taxpayers from excessive risk-taking at lenders and prevent future bank bailouts akin to those seen during the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

Her supporters claim much of the criticism she faces is the product of discrimination based on where she was raised and educated. She grew up in Kazakhstan when it was part of the Soviet Union and is a graduate of Moscow State University. She later worked at the Treasury Department in the George W. Bush administration.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote on Tuesday that he is disappointed in what he categorized as “shameful and discriminatory public attacks on” Omarova.

“We would note that if Professor Omarova were a candidate for virtually any other job, discrimination on the basis of her national origin would violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and numerous other civil rights laws,” he wrote in his letter to ABA’s Nichols and other banking-industry advocates.

Nichols insists that his grievances with Omarova’s candidacy “have nothing to do with her impressive personal background.”

Omarova said, if confirmed, she’d like to coordinate with the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to study how best to protect smaller banks in more rural areas of the country like upstate New York.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

“Having a local bank that knows what small businesses on the ground need and can actually make a credit decision based on their understanding of who these people are and what they’re doing is such a bread-and-butter, American ingredient of economic prosperity and local job creation,” she said.

“I think it would be important to understand where the community banks may be overly burdened by various requirements,” she added.

Those remarks could appeal to key Democratic holdout Tester, a moderate and community bank advocate who joined Republicans last month in expressing reservations about her candidacy.

His office told CNBC in October that her “past statements about the role of government in the financial system raise concerns about her ability to impartially serve,” but that he looked forward to speaking with her one-on-one about his concerns.

Tester’s office confirmed that the two had since met, and that the senator looked forward to hearing from her again on Thursday. A spokesman declined to say whether their meeting was enough to earn his support.

Even if Tester ultimately agrees to support Biden’s choice to lead the OCC, she could face a razor-thin vote in the broader Senate, split 50-50 between the two parties. That’s because Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona both told the White House that they had misgivings about her candidacy, according to Axios.

Sinema’s office did not reply to CNBC’s request for comment, while a representative for Manchin declined to comment.

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