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President Biden's nominee to oversee banks may not have enough votes to be confirmed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The fate of President Biden's nominee to become one of the country's top banking regulators now hangs in the balance. Cornell University professor Saule Omarova had her Senate confirmation hearing today to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees many U.S. banks, from Wells Fargo to small community banks. But critics have called her views on the financial system radical. Some have even suggested that her background as someone born and educated in the former Soviet Union is disqualifying. NPR's David Gura joins us now with more. Hi, David.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So exactly why is Omarova has such a controversial nominee here?

GURA: Well, let's divide this into two parts. The first is what Saule Omarova has written, and the second is who Saule Omarova is, and we'll start with what she's written. Her main focus is on the U.S. financial system, and what she's done in her academic research is she's proposed some really substantial ways to remake or to reinvent the U.S. financial system. Now, Republican senators seized on one of her papers in particular. Omarova has suggested every American could have a bank account with the Federal Reserve instead of with commercial lenders. Proponents of that say it would ensure everyone has a bank account in a country where many people are still unbanked. But critics, including ranking member Pat Toomey, argue what she really wants to do is nationalize the U.S. banking system. And Toomey says he's worried about what Omarova could do if she's put in a position of power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT TOOMEY: The opportunity to exercise a radical ideology through the powers of the Comptroller of the Currency are chilling.

GURA: So that's some of the controversy about what Omarova has written. As to who she is, Omarova is a U.S. citizen. She was born in what was the Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan, and one of her three degrees is from Moscow State University. A handful of politicians and pundits have brought this up, and they've suggested it's somehow disqualifying. And, Ailsa, this came up again today at the hearing.

CHANG: OK, so how did the hearing go?

GURA: Well, on policy, Omarova made a distinction between the ideas that she's explored, that she's advocated for as a professor and how she would approach being a policymaker. Omarova emphasized she would work within the powers allocated by Congress. And over and over again, she stressed that her research is being taken out of context. Omarova stressed how important she thinks the private banking system is to the U.S. economy. She praised smaller community banks. She said she believes in free market capitalism. And Omarova defended her personal background under questioning from Republican Senator John Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KENNEDY: I don't mean any disrespect. I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my goodness.

SAULE OMAROVA: Senator, I'm not a communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.

GURA: You hear someone saying, oh, my goodness on that microphone. The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sherrod Brown, later criticized his colleague for that line of questions, calling it an attempt, Ailsa, at character assassination.

CHANG: So interesting. Well, what do you think? Will today's hearing impact her chances to be confirmed, do you think?

GURA: Well, it seems unlikely she'll get any Republican support. That didn't seem to change today. So Omarova has to get the vote of each and every Democrat, and someone who's been on the fence is Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON TESTER: I am sorry that you had to face what I see as unfair and unacceptable attacks. I do, however, have some significant concerns about positions that you have taken.

GURA: Including her views on the need to restructure the energy sector, for example. The White House says today's hearing shows GOP attacks on Omarova fall flat in the face of the facts. And, Ailsa, the administration says it still strongly supports this nomination.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Gura. Thank you, David.

GURA: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.