Senate confirms Brainard as Fed vice chair, stalls on Cook

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard as vice chair of the central bank.

Senators voted 52 to 43 in favor of Brainard’s confirmation to be the No. 2 official on the Fed board of governors, where she’s served since 2014 at the appointment of former President Obama.

She will be just the third woman to serve as Fed vice chair since the modern central bank system was established in 1914, following Alice Rivlin and former Fed Chair and current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Six Republicans crossed the aisle to support Brainard, pushing her over the necessary 50 votes for confirmation as Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.) isolate with COVID-19. All Senate Democrats and GOP Sens. Mike Crapo (Idaho), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Todd Young (Indiana) backed Brainard, who had served as a Treasury undersecretary during the Obama administration and a White House economic adviser during the Clinton administration before joining the Fed.

Brainard has been aligned with Fed Chair Jerome Powell on the bank’s efforts to fight inflation while preventing a strong U.S. economy from slowing into recession. She supported keeping the Fed’s baseline interest rate range near zero through all of 2021 but pivoted along with Powell in favor of rate hikes as inflation steamed well ahead of the bank’s expectations late last year.

Progressive Democrats had urged Biden to replace Powell with Brainard, citing her frequent objections to efforts supported by Powell and other Republicans to streamline bank regulations. Even so, Biden opted to renominate Powell, who is popular among lawmakers in both parties, as both the White House and Fed faced rising pressure over their handling of inflation.

Brainard’s term as vice chair will lapse in 2026, along with the 14-year term on the Fed board she was first confirmed to in 2013. The Fed board of governors has up to seven members serving staggered 14-year terms, three of which serve separate four-year terms as the board’s chair, vice chair and vice chair of supervision.

The Senate is also expected to confirm the renomination of Powell and the nomination of Davidson College economics professor Philip Jefferson to serve on the Fed board as soon as the end of the week. Both were approved by the Senate Banking Committee earlier this month with overwhelming bipartisan support and should face no trouble clearing the 50-vote hurdle.

It could be weeks, however, before Biden’s full slate of Fed nominees is confirmed. With Vice President Harris and Wyden and Murphy all sidelined with COVID-19, only nominees with bipartisan support can advance until they return.

The Senate was also set to advance the nomination of Michigan State economics professor Lisa Cook, who was nominated as a Fed governor, during a scheduled Tuesday floor vote. But with no Republicans backing Cook, Senate Democrats sought unsuccessfully to delay the vote to end debate on her nomination. 

Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, objected to a request from Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to delay the vote on Cook’s nomination and move to votes on Powell’s and Jefferson’s nominations.

Toomey said he refused to allow the delay so the Senate could vote on all three nominees this week, which would force Democrats to take a losing vote on Cook. He called it retribution for Democrats refusing to delay a vote in 2020 on the nomination of Judy Shelton, whom former President Trump tapped for the seat Cook has been nominated to fill.

The Senate failed to end debate on Shelton’s nomination after two GOP senators with the coronavirus missed the vote, just as two Democratic senators were absent on Tuesday. But Brown said the situations were not comparable because Cook has universal support from Democrats, whereas several GOP senators opposed Shelton.

While Cook’s nomination will not advance Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) can line up another vote when Democrats return. It is unclear if Republicans will allow Powell and Jefferson to be confirmed before that point.

Former federal bank regulatory official Michael Barr, Biden’s nominee to serve as Fed vice chair of supervision, is also awaiting a confirmation hearing before the Banking panel.

Updated at 4:47 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Janet Yellen Lael Brainard Lisa Cook Obama Pat Toomey Ron Wyden

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