Defying GOP, Obama appoints consumer watchdog

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Richard Cordray (R) prior to speaking about the economy at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, on January 4, 2012. Obama plans to appoint Cordray as acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a recess appointment, bypassing Congress and setting up a bitter election-year legal showdown with Republicans.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Updated 2:25 PM ET

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio - A defiant President Barack Obama, tired of GOP stalling his nominee to lead a new consumer protection agency, bucked that opposition and put him in charge without Senate approval.

"I refuse to take `no' for an answer," the president said.

Outraged GOP leaders in Congress immediately suggested that courts would determine whether Richard Cordray's appointment was illegal.

Obama announced the move with Cordray by his side before a cheering crowd in Ohio, a politically vital state where Cordray once was attorney general.

"Today I am appointing Richard as consumer watchdog," the president addressed the crowd. "That means he is going to be in charge of one thing: looking out for the best interests of American consumers. His job is to protect families like yours from the abuses of the financial industry. His job is to make sure you have all the information you need. Right away, he'll make sure that millions of Americans are treated fairly by mortgage brokers, payday lenders and debt collectors."

Obama mentioned why he was making the appointment now even though Cordray was nominated last summer. He cited Senate Republican opposition who refused to give Cordray an up-or-down vote, despite the fact he has the support of the Senate majority.

"The only reason why Republicans have blocked Richard in the Senate." said Obama, "is because they don't agree with the law that set up a consumer watchdog in the first place. They want to weaken the law. They want to water it down. By the way, a lot of folks in the financial industry have poured millions of dollars to try to water it down. That makes no sense."

He added: "We shouldn't be weakening oversight, we shouldn't be weakening accountability. We should be strengthening it, especially when it comes to looking out for families like yours."

With a director in place, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will be able to start overseeing the mortgage companies, payday lenders, debt collectors and other financial companies often blamed for practices that helped tank the economy.

Mr. Obama's decision to make a recess appointment has already caused an uproar from Capitol Hill to Wall Street. He is essentially declaring the Senate's short off-and-on legislative sessions a sham intended to block his appointments.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that Mr. Obama had "arrogantly circumvented the American people" in using the recess appointment and said it represented "a sharp departure from a long-standing precedent that has limited the President to recess appointments only when the Senate is in a recess of 10 days or longer.

"Breaking from this precedent lands this appointee in uncertain legal territory, threatens the confirmation process and fundamentally endangers the Congress's role in providing a check on the excesses of the executive branch."

House Speaker John Boehner called the move an "extraordinarily and entirely unprecedented power grab" that would have a "devastating effect on the checks and balances that are enshrined in our constitution."

Boehner said he expected the courts "will find the appointment to be illegitimate."

The White House is expecting considerable criticism and perhaps a court challenge, but says Mr. Obama was left with little choice to get the consumer agency fully running after months of stalemate.

Obama demands vote on consumer watchdog
Video: Obama slams GOP for blocking Cordray nomination

Democrats voiced support for the appointment, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that "despire admitting that ... [Cordray] is qualified for the job, Republicans denied him an up-or-down vote in an effort to substantially weaken the agency."

Acting right after Tuesday's GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa, Mr. Obama is seeking to grab attention and show voters that he will advocate for the middle class no matter what the opposition. It is his most bare-knuckle initiative so far in his campaign of taking action without waiting for Congress.

Cordray would take over the job later in the week and stand to serve for at least the next two years, covering the length of the Senate's session.

More than a standoff over one significant appointment, the fight speaks to the heart of presidential campaign under way. Presiding over a troubled but improving economy, Mr. Obama must persuade a weary middle class that he is their champion, all while fending off fire from Republicans challengers and lawmakers.

To get Cordray into the job, Mr. Obama is essentially dictating to Senate what constitutes a legitimate legislative session.

Mr. Obama has constitutional power to make appointments during a congressional recess.

Expressly to keep that from happening, Republicans in the Senate have had the Senate running in "pro forma" sessions, meaning open for business in name with no actual business planned. Democrats started the practice when George W. Bush was president to halt him from making recess appointments.

The Senate held such a session on Tuesday and planned another one on Friday. Republicans contend Mr. Obama cannot make a recess appointment during a break of less than three days, based on years of practice.

Yet the Obama White House has determined that such an approach is a gimmick.

For all practical purposes, the Senate is in recess and Mr. Obama is free to make the appointment on his own, administration officials told the AP.

Since the practice of pro forma sessions began in earnest in 2007, never has a president made a recess appointment during such a session, officials said.

The president also was expected to announce other recess appointments on Wednesday.

Until now, he has made 28. Bush made more than 170 during his presidency. Bill Clinton made almost 140.

Republicans have had little opposition if any to the qualifications of Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general. Their objection is with the consumer agency itself, which they claim has too much power and too little transparency and accountability.

Mr. Obama and his team say lawmakers should try to revise the Wall Street oversight law if they don't like it, not keep the agency from performing its job.

The White House attempted to rally public support for Cordray and push senators to support his nomination, but the effort failed. In December, Republicans kept Cordray's nomination from coming to a vote. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown was the only Republican who voted in favor of halting the delay tactic.

Before his remarks at a high school in a Democratic suburb of Cleveland, Mr. Obama planned to meet with a family who got taken advantage of by a mortgage broker. He wants to use their story as an example of how the consumer agency can crack down on such practices.

Mr. Obama was traveling to the most Democratic congressional district in Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, a day after Mitt Romney won Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses by just eight votes. Mr. Obama's trip signals the White House's intent to keep the president in the public eye even as the political world focuses on the GOP's selection process.

The White House's choice of Ohio for Mr. Obama's first presidential trip of 2012 underscores the state's high-profile role in presidential politics. It is a swing state that went for George W. Bush in 2004 and for Mr. Obama in 2008.