Obama pushes Senate to confirm Wall Street 'cops on the beat'

President Obama hailed his nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a fierce watchdog tough enough to stand up to Wall Street.

The president highlighted Mary Jo White’s previous work as a federal prosecutor to bolster her nomination to head the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), noting she pursued cases against mob bosses and terrorists.

“You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo,” he said Thursday. “Mary Jo does not intimidate easily, and that’s important, because she has an important job ahead of her.”

Obama urged the Senate to consider White’s nomination as soon as possible, along with his renomination of Richard Cordray so he could continue his work as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The immediate response to White’s nomination suggested she would not face major opposition in her bid to head the Wall Street watchdog, as no Republican lawmakers voiced major concerns. However, it appeared that Cordray would continue to face the same GOP opposition that drove Obama to use a recess appointment to get him into place one year ago.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised White as a “tough-as-nails prosecutor” and predicted she would “easily be confirmed.”

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the new ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, did not comment on White’s nomination immediately. His spokesman said he would refrain from commenting until he had a chance to meet with her.

White’s nomination comes after former SEC head Mary Schapiro stepped down in December. SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter stepped in as chairman in her absence.

While White did serve as a director of the Nasdaq stock exchange, she built her reputation not in the financial world, but the legal one. She prosecuted a number of high-profile cases as a U.S. Attorney in New York, including ones against mafia boss John Gotti and the plotters behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. 

She later went on to work as a white-collar defense attorney, lending her services to former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis when he faced civil charges over the bank’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch, filed by then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The White pick has many long dissatisfied by the Obama administration’s tepid crackdown on Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis hoping a White-helmed SEC would take a tougher tack.

“Failure to hold any significant Wall Street figure accountable for the most massive economic crimes in history demands remedy,” said Bartlett Naylor, financial reform advocate for Public Citizen. “We hope that White’s record as a white-collar crime fighter will lead to strong SEC enforcement under her tenure.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) hit the same note, hoping White would continue pushing for punishing Wall Street wrongdoers.

“Having an SEC chairman with extensive prosecutorial experience can be a good thing,” he said. “With the Justice Department repeatedly giving large financial institutions a pass on prosecutions, the SEC is the last line of defense for individual investors.” 

Introducing White, Obama said seeking out bad actors in the financial sector would be a priority.

“We need to keep going after irresponsible behavior in the financial industry so taxpayers do not pay the price,” he said.

While no immediate obstacles appeared in White’s bid for confirmation, it was déjà vu for Cordray, as Republicans long critical of the CFPB again vowed to block his nomination.

Crapo called the Cordray nomination “premature,” and vowed to continue to oppose any nominee to head the agency until its structure is changed so a bipartisan commission instead of a lone director runs it. He also called the president’s recess appointment of Cordray “unconstitutional,” because Congress had been holding brief “pro forma” sessions at the time in an explicit effort to block such a move. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the move is still pending.

Obama hailed Cordray’s first year on the job as proof he deserved to continue doing so. His recess appointment is currently set to expire at the end of this year.

“Richard has earned a reputation as a straight shooter, and someone who is willing to bring every voice to the table,” Obama said. “There is absolutely no excuse for the Senate to wait any longer to confirm him.”

Banking industry advocates, long wary of the CFPB, have kind words for Cordray’s work on the job, but are still hoping his nomination will rekindle the push for a commission.

“We’ve not always agreed with each other, but he’s extremely accessible, and I think he’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever encountered,” said Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association. “As chair of a commission, he would be a worthwhile, credible candidate.”

The Cordray nomination surprised some not because of the pick, but with how early it was made. 

The pick, along with the nomination of White, comes as the president looks to remake his team for his second term, and adds to an already busy slate of key nominations pending before the Senate, including the heads of State, Treasury and Defense Departments. Obama also needs to fill top positions at the Labor, Commerce and Interior Departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Trade Representative.