The president nominated Richard Cordray in July, 2011.

The president nominated Richard Cordray in July, 2011. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP file photo

The Republicans' Plan to Take Down the Consumer Protection Agency Chief

GOP could spotlight recess-appointed Cordray's 'personal defects.'

If Harry Reid goes nuclear, Senate Republicans plan to make the fight personal—and their first target will be the man sitting atop the still-controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Democrats are eyeing the so-called nuclear option to blow up Senate rules that allow Republicans to block the confirmation of President Obama’s nominees. And should Reid try to neuter the opposition, Republicans plan to make life miserable for the nominees, starting with Richard Cordray, the man installed at CFPB.

That means an argument that has been about the structure and power of the new regulatory bureau would quickly morph into one about whether the recess-appointed Cordray should be the guy running the place—with Republicans shining a spotlight on his “personal defects.”

"If you’re going to try to destroy the Senate, we’re going to go down swinging,” said a senior GOP Senate aide familiar with the planned Republican strategy.

The threat to personally attack any nominee pushed through by changing the Senate rules extends to all of Obama’s picks. But Cordray is a special case for Republicans, who until now have held his nomination hostage in their effort to force changes to the consumer bureau’s structure. Instead of a leader nominated by the president, Republicans want the regulator to be run by a bipartisan panel.

This time, Republicans are picking on Cordray because Reid pulled a vote on his nomination last month and rescheduled it for July, signaling that he planned a broader showdown with Republicans over the president’s other stalled nominations.

Plus, it might be easier to attack the Ohio Democrat, thanks to a trove of opposition research from his days as a statewide elected official.

“If you’re going to nuke the Senate, then you should nuke the Senate over someone who has impeccable qualifications. And we would make the argument that this person does not meet that high standard, and that would require us to start digging around in some of the Ohio files to unearth some of which we know and some of which we’ll find,” the senior aide said.

That digging is already underway.

In a taste of things that might come his way, Republicans pointed to an October 2008 Dayton Daily News report that two weeks after Cordray was sworn in as the state’s treasurer, the 25-year-old stepdaughter of an Ohio-based Wachovia Securities official donated $10,000 to his campaign. Soon after that donation, Wachovia increased its share of the state’s bond-trading businesses from less than 1 percent to 37.5 percent. Cordray told the paper there was no connection between the contribution and the contract and said his campaign would return the money.

So far, it looks to be old news. But another Republican aide said the GOP would use Cordray’s background to ask if the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “an organization that’s totally unaccountable to Congress, being run by a partisan Democrat, is that appropriate in the context of the IRS scandal?”

Democrats dismiss the threat as weak sauce. A Democratic leadership aide noted that many Republicans are already on record arguing that their beef isn’t with Cordray as an individual, but rather with the consumer bureau as an institution. “We would use their own words against them,” the aide said.

By waiting until July to deal with nominations all at once, Democrats hope to show that Republicans aren’t blocking them on the merits, but over ideology or simply to stymie the president. The Republican strategy to make the fight personal isn’t going to work, the aide said.

GOP aides counter that if Democrats would take their finger off the nuclear trigger and negotiate some changes to the bureau, they can avoid an ugly fight.

Otherwise, they’ll start shooting at the hostage.