WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has been pressing the Senate for months to confirm Richard Cordray as the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, only to be blocked by Republicans. When lawmakers left town for the holidays, Republicans took advantage of Congress' procedural rules to keep both chambers from formally going on break, a move designed to prevent the president from making recess appointments.
But it appears that Obama has a small window next week -- possibly a mere 30 seconds -- when he could make recess appointments, and at least one consumer advocacy group expects the president to move on Cordray.
The second session of the 112th Congress begins on Jan. 3. Before the new session can be gaveled in, the current session must end. Between the two sessions, even if just momentarily, Congress will be in a state of recess and the president has the authority to make recess appointments.
Given Obama's tough talk earlier this month about not taking "any options off the table" when it comes to installing Cordray as the head of the CFPB, consumer advocates are predicting the White House is poised to move on Jan. 3.
"All signs point to them using that window," said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Congress Watch, a division of Public Citizen.
Gilbert said Jan. 3 presents "a real opportunity" for Obama to use his authority to get the CFPB, which began operations in late July, fully up and running. Cordray currently serves as head of the agency's enforcement division. Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said last month that while the agency has been able to carry out some operations without a director, it can't monitor the activities of nonbank entities that have been "the source of some of the most harmful, deceptive, unfair and predatory lending practices" that led to the financial crisis.
Republicans have been vowing for months to oppose Cordray's confirmation -- or anybody's confirmation as director -- until key changes are made at the agency. Among their demands: eliminating the director's position, creating an oversight board instead, and requiring congressional approval of the agency's budget versus permitting it to draw funds from the Federal Reserve. The CFPB, the brainchild of Harvard law professor and now-Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, was created under last year's Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. Democrats argue that Republicans' real aim is to undermine the agency's work altogether.
If Obama doesn't take action on Cordray on Jan. 3, Gilbert said Obama won't have another shot at making recess appointments until Feb. 20, Presidents Day.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide was unclear on what the White House may be planning for Cordray, but said it makes the most sense for Obama to act "after the new year, if they decided to do anything at all." A CFPB spokeswoman declined to comment, and a White House spokeswoman wouldn't say either way whether Obama has his eye on the Jan. 3 window.
"We decline to comment on speculation about any potential recess appointments," said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.