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Senate confirms Brainard as Fed vice chair but COVID-19 trips Democrats on Cook vote

Democrats lack sufficient votes because of COVID-19

Lisa Cook, nominee to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board, encountered another obstacle Tuesday in Democratic absences because of COVID-19.
Lisa Cook, nominee to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board, encountered another obstacle Tuesday in Democratic absences because of COVID-19. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate voted 52-43 Tuesday to confirm Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, to become vice chair, but fell short of the votes needed to move forward with Lisa Cook’s nomination to join the board.

Democrats didn’t have the votes needed to invoke cloture and limit debate on Cook’s nomination after Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut tested positive for COVID-19. With Vice President Kamala Harris also out because of COVID-19, the Democrats wouldn’t have been able to even break a tie.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., followed the Cook vote by withdrawing his motion to invoke cloture on Alvaro Bedoya to be a member of the Federal Trade Commission, avoiding a similar outcome for another nominee. Harris broke a Senate tie last month to discharge his nomination from committee. Bedoya’s confirmation would break a partisan 2-2 deadlock on the commission.

The 47-51 vote is the latest obstacle for Cook, who would be the first Black woman to join the Fed board. Democrats had indicated earlier Tuesday that they expected to fall short of the needed votes on Cook because of the absences.

Senate Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sought to avoid that outcome by asking for unanimous consent to delay the vote. Brown in exchange offered to move forward immediately to the consideration of Philip Jefferson’s nomination to join the Fed board and acting Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s nomination for a second term as chairman. Both have received strong bipartisan support.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., Senate Banking ranking member, objected, forcing the vote to move forward.

“It’s very simple. I want to vote on all the noms. Republicans are ready to vote on all the noms. Our Democratic colleagues have complained about not having votes. We want to vote. We want to vote on Lisa Cook. We want to vote on Chairman Powell. We want to vote on Mr. Jefferson,” Toomey said on the floor. “We’re ready to vote, not to cancel a vote, and so I object.”

Cook has faced a series of obstacles throughout her confirmation process. She was among the nominees caught up in a boycott launched by Senate Banking Republicans to stall the confirmation of Sarah Bloom Raskin to become Fed vice chair for supervision. Raskin later withdrew.

Then, a Banking Committee vote to advance Cook’s nomination to the floor ended in a 12-12 tie, requiring the Senate to take an additional vote to discharge her nomination from committee. The tally was 50-49 in that vote.

Tuesday’s vote is unlikely to be the end of Cook’s nomination. Schumer changed his vote to no and filed a motion to reconsider Cook’s nomination at a later date.

Brown said the panel’s Republicans should be “ashamed” of their votes on Black women nominated to serve in the administration, noting 11 out of the 12 Republicans on the panel also voted against Sandra Thompson to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

“Twelve out of 12 voted against Lisa Cook, saying she’s not qualified – Truman scholar, Marshall scholar, I believe, too, Ph.D. from Berkeley, graduated from Spelman, teaches at Michigan State,” Brown said. “We see a habit, a consistent pattern of that. So we get no help from them to fill out the Federal Reserve. It’s been 109 years, and seven people on the Federal Reserve at one time, and not one African American woman ever. They should be ashamed.”

Banking Republicans voted this Congress to advance the nominations of five Black women, including Cecilia Rouse to lead the Council of Economic Advisers; Nuria Fernandez to lead the Federal Transit Administration; Alexia Latortue to be Treasury Department assistant secretary for International Markets and Development; Adrianne Todman to be Housing and Urban Development Department deputy secretary; and Alanna McCargo to be president of Ginnie Mae. No Republican votes were recorded in opposition to the five nominees.

Toomey previously criticized Cook’s monetary policy experience and said she would be too weak on inflation.

“It is worth asking ourselves if these nominees are truly the ‘inflation fighters’ that the White House claims they are. In my view, one nominee in particular — professor Lisa Cook — dramatically fails this test,” Toomey said last month on the Senate floor. “Professor Cook has nearly zero experience in monetary policy. She does have a Ph.D. in economics. However, not a single one of her publications concerns monetary economics.”

Brainard, who joined the Fed in 2014, has said that slowing inflation would be her top priority as vice chair. The Consumer Price Index showed an 8.5 percent annual inflation rate in March, the highest annual pace since 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She told senators at her January confirmation hearing that she was confident the Fed could bring inflation down to about 2 percent without undermining the job market. The Fed raised the fed funds rate in March by a quarter of a percent to slow rising prices and officials have signaled a half-percent hike at their next meeting next week.

Brown praised Brainard in a floor speech Tuesday.

“She championed efforts to modernize and strengthen the Community Reinvestment Act. She’s committed to addressing and staying ahead of financial risks to our economy. She has a long history of bipartisan support and collaboration,” Brown said.

Brainard, a Democrat, is known for her view that climate change could pose potential financial risk. That and her dissent on votes to ease the Fed’s banking regulations during the last administration have drawn criticism from some Republicans, including Toomey.

Both Brainard and Powell, a Republican, support factoring climate risk into stress tests, or scenario analyses run by the Fed.

Toomey criticized Brainard’s stance on climate change and the Fed’s monetary policy framework.

“I’m concerned Governor Brainard will undermine the Fed’s credibility and independence by straying away from the Fed’s narrow statutory mandate,” Toomey said in a statement. “Governor Brainard has urged the Fed to address the politically-charged issue of global warming, which is beyond the Fed’s expertise and mission.”

Toomey also took issue with her leadership on the monetary policy framework adopted in 2020 by the Fed, with her support. The framework weighs job numbers within specific demographic groups, especially communities left behind in times of prosperity, in addition to employment as a whole.

Brainard is the first of President Joe Biden’s five Fed nominees, including Powell for a second term as chairman and Cook and Jefferson to join the board, to be confirmed by the Senate.

Biden this month nominated Michael Barr, a former Treasury Department official, to be the Fed’s vice chair for supervision. The Senate Banking Committee has yet to schedule a hearing to consider his nomination.

Together, the nominees would return the seven-member Fed board to full force.

Brainard’s term on the board and as vice chair expires in 2026.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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