Why Biden's nominee to regulate banks is proving so controversial An ugly battle is being waged over Saule Omarova, President Biden's nominee to oversee most of the money held by banks. Her confirmation hearing is on Thursday.

A look into the ugly and incredibly personal fight over Biden's pick to oversee banks

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden wants a new sheriff to oversee many U.S. banks, but she faces a tough process as critics are calling the president's pick a radical and a communist. Saule Omarova has the chance to respond today during her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has been around since the 1860s. And while it's not widely known, the OCC is responsible for the oversight of banks as large as Citigroup and Wells Fargo but also many smaller community banks. Kathryn Judge teaches at Columbia Law School, and she says there's a sense banks and the regulator have had too close a relationship.

KATHRYN JUDGE: The comptroller has often been viewed as overly responsive to the interests of the industry that it oversees.

GURA: One comptroller during the Trump administration reportedly referred to banks as his customers. Enter Saule Omarova, who spent her early career doing what most would-be bank regulators do. She worked at a big law firm, then in the U.S. Treasury Department - she did that during the George W. Bush administration - but then Omarova became a law professor. And Judge says, through her research, Omarova has wrestled with some big, provocative questions about how to reinvent the U.S. financial system.

JUDGE: So I do think that part of what she represents is an effort to shake up the status quo.

GURA: At Cornell, Omarova has written about climate finance. But what's gotten her into hot water is a recent paper suggesting every American should have a bank account with the Federal Reserve. She argues that would help communities that have been underserved by banks. Critics say she's in favor of nationalizing the banking system. Last year, Omarova told MSNBC's Chris Hayes these questions are at the heart of her research.

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SAULE OMAROVA: Do we have the financial system that is basically serving the needs of the real economy, serving the needs of the American people as it should? Or do we have a financial system that is essentially overbloated, self-referential, self-serving.

GURA: To Republican Senator Pat Toomey, Omarova's resume reads like a long list of warning signs, and the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee is outraged by her nomination.

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PAT TOOMEY: I don't think I've ever seen a more radical choice for any regulatory spot in our federal government.

GURA: In a fiery speech, Toomey quoted from Omarova's papers and social media posts. And then he brought up Omarova's background.

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TOOMEY: How does it even happen that it occurs to someone to think up these things? Well, maybe a contributing factor could be if a person grew up in the former Soviet Union and went to Moscow State University and attended there on a Vladimir Lenin academic scholarship.

GURA: Those comments fueled op-eds about Omarova in The Wall Street Journal and the National Review. She's denied she's a communist. And in an interview with the Financial Times, Omarova, who would be the first woman to lead the agency, called herself an easy target, as an immigrant, a woman and a minority.

SHERROD BROWN: I just think it's despicable.

GURA: That's Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Banking Committee, who says Toomey is guilty of character assassination. Academics who are familiar with Omarova's work say politicians and pundits are misrepresenting Omarova's research and the spirit of it. Senator Brown knows how narrow the margins are, but he says he's confident Omarova will be confirmed.

BROWN: I care greatly about this nomination, and we're going to make it happen.

GURA: But there's at least one moderate Democrat on his committee who's among those who still need convincing. Montana Senator Jon Tester tells NPR some of Omarova's past statements raise real concerns. But, Tester says, he's looking forward to discussing them with her at her hearing today.

David Gura, NPR News, New York.

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