WASHINGTON — An already rocky confirmation process for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke could become even more complicated if the full Senate does not approve his nomination to another term by Jan. 31, when his current term ends.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, whose panel approved the Fed chief's nomination in a 16-to-7 vote on Thursday, brought the issue to the fore when pressed by Republican lawmakers to delay the vote until next month. The Connecticut Democrat stressed that the full Senate needed to sign off on Bernanke by the end of January if he is to remain in his job as chairman.

"I've been told he could not serve as chairman," Dodd told reporters Thursday. "The vice chairman would have to assume that role."

The Fed would not comment on that prospect. Though Dodd expressed hope that the Senate would approve the nomination quickly after reconvening on Jan. 19, lawyers at the central bank are determining what would happen if they do not vote before Jan. 31.

In addition to being the Fed's chairman, Bernanke is also a member of the central bank's board. If the Senate failed to approve his nomination by the end of January, Bernanke could remain at the central bank; his term as a board member does not expire until Jan. 31, 2020.

But who would fill the chairman's seat is unclear. Though Dodd said it would be filled by the vice chairman, Donald Kohn, the Federal Reserve Act does not outline a succession plan if the chairman is unable to serve.

It would be rare - but not unprecedented - for the Senate to fail to approve a nominee to chair the Fed by the end of their term. Marriner Eccles continued to run the Fed for more than two months after his term expired in 1948. Alan Greenspan also remained at the helm of the central bank in 1996 for more than three months after his term expired.

But in both instances, however, there was no sitting vice chairman and the Fed's board voted to retain Eccles and Greenspan as "chairman pro tempore."

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