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Biden's pick to become a key banking regulator withdraws after ugly nomination fight

Saule Omarova addresses the Senate Banking Committee during her nomination hearing on Nov. 18 to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Omarova withdrew her nomination on Tuesday after facing opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
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Saule Omarova addresses the Senate Banking Committee during her nomination hearing on Nov. 18 to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Omarova withdrew her nomination on Tuesday after facing opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats.

Saule Omarova has withdrawn her nomination to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a little known agency that has a major role in overseeing banks in the country.

Omarova, a Cornell University law professor, had faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans over her academic research, which had proposed some major changes to the banking system.

Some of the attacks were unusually personal, including outright suggestions that the Kazakhstan-born nominee held "communist" views. Omarova, who's a U.S. citizen, has strongly denied that.

Yet some moderate Democrats had also expressed reservations about her previous positions, making her path to confirmation challenging in the closely-divided Senate even if she had strong support from progressives.

"I deeply value President Biden's trust in my abilities and remain firmly committed to the Administration's vision of a prosperous, inclusive, and just future for our country," Omarova wrote in her letter requesting the White House withdraw her nomination to head the OCC.

"At this point in the process, however, it is no longer tenable for me to continue as a Presidential nominee," she added.

The letter was released by the White House on Tuesday.

'Professor or comrade?': Omarova faces personal attacks

Omarova had previously worked for Davis, Polk, & Wardwell, a white shoe law firm, and then the U.S. Treasury Department during the George W. Bush administration.

But it was her research as an academic that drew strong opposition from Republicans and banking groups, who accused her of holding "radical" views, as well as sparking misgivings from some Democrats such as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

In a widely-cited paper, for example, she had suggested the Federal Reserve could offer retail bank accounts, in part to reduce the number of "unbanked" people.

As head of the OCC, Omarova would have overseen an agency responsible for regulating the assets held by more than 1,000 banks.

But her nomination was particularly notable for the attacks she attracted from some Republicans over her personal background.

Omarova was born in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Kazakhstan, and she received her undergraduate degree from Moscow State University.

At Omarova's nomination hearing last month, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., drew gasps after he brought up her childhood.

"I don't know whether to call you 'professor' or 'comrade,'" he said.

"I am not a communist," Omarova replied. "I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born."

President Biden, in a statement, strongly criticized the personal nature of some of the attacks against Omarova.

"As a strong advocate for consumers and a staunch defender of the safety and soundness of our financial system, Saule would have brought invaluable insight and perspective to our important work on behalf of the American people," Biden said in a statement.

"But unfortunately, from the very beginning of her nomination, Saule was subjected to inappropriate personal attacks that were far beyond the pale," he added.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.