By Ben Feller and Jim Kuhnhenn
SHAKER HEIGHTS — Defying Republican lawmakers, President Barack Obama on Wednesday barreled by the Senate and installed a national consumer watchdog on his own, provoking GOP threats of a constitutional showdown in the courts. Setting a fierce tone in the election-year fight for middle-class voters, Obama said: “I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Obama named Richard Cordray, a respected former Ohio attorney general, to be the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after giving up on hopes for a confirmation vote in the Senate. The appointment means the agency is able to oversee a vast swath of lending companies and others accused at times of preying on consumers with shady practices.
In political terms, Obama’s move was unapologetically brazen, the equivalent of a haymaker at Republicans in the Senate who had blocked his nominee. Acting right after Tuesday’s presidential caucuses in Iowa, which showered attention on his opponents, Obama sought to make a splash as the one fighting for the rights of the little guy.
Presidents of both parties long have gotten around a stalled confirmation by naming a nominee to a job when the Senate is on a break through a process known as a recess appointment.
But Obama went further by squeezing in his appointment during a break between rapid Senate sessions this week, an unusual move that the GOP called an arrogant power grab.
The White House said what the Senate was doing — gaveling in and out of session every few days solely to avoid being in recess — was a sham. Obama’s aides said the president would not be stopped by a legislative gimmick, even though it was Senate Democrats who began the practice to halt President George W. Bush’s appointments.
“When Congress refuses to act, and as a result hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them,” Obama said from Cleveland.
Consumer groups hailed Obama’s decision; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce balked and warned it was so legally shaky that the consumer bureau’s work may be compromised.
The response from Republicans was blistering.
The top Senate Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Obama had “arrogantly circumvented the American people” and endangered the nation’s systems of checks and balances. Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah called it a “very grave decision by this heavy-handed, autocratic White House.”
And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Cincinnati, said: “It’s clear the president would rather trample our system of separation of powers than work with Republicans to move the country forward. This action goes beyond the president’s authority, and I expect the courts will find the appointment to be illegitimate.”
Mitt Romney, a leading Republican presidential candidate, accused Obama of displaying “Chicago-style politics at its worst.”
It was not immediately clear who might file a suit on the matter. Most likely, a private party regulated by the consumer agency would have the legal standing.
More than a standoff over one significant appointment, the fight speaks to the heart of a presidential campaign under way.