WASHINGTON - In sharp contrast with protests at a Senate building next door against George W. Bush's choice for attorney general, the President-elect's top picks to oversee the financial services industry were quietly embraced in confirmation hearings Wednesday.
Treasury Secretary-designate Paul H. O'Neill and Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Mel Martinez won praise from politicians on both sides of the aisle and appear poised to win easy confirmation from the Senate as early as next week.
In Mr. O'Neill's case, the prospects of Democratic opposition began fading immediately with the opening remarks of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is chairing the Senate Finance Committee until his party loses the majority on Saturday, when Republican Richard Cheney will be sworn in as Vice President.
After enumerating the challenges awaiting the next Treasury secretary, Sen. Baucus told Mr. O'Neill, "In you, the President-elect seems to have found the right person for the job."
But the wealth of good feeling did not prevent the committee from filling a three-and-a-half-hour hearing with questions for the secretary-designate. Mr. O'Neill, until recently the chairman of Aluminum Company of America in Pittsburgh, fielded inquiries on multiple topics, including tax cuts, international trade, and the relative effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policy as an economic stimulant.
In response to Sen. Baucus, Mr. O'Neill said that he believes the federal government could afford the President-elect's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, even if economic growth slows as projected.
One benefit of the tax cut would be a reduction of consumer debt, he said. "Over the last six months, consumers have been using credit at an unsustainable rate," and the cut would lead some to pay down that debt, he said.
When asked about it by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Mr. O'Neill said that he was not concerned about consumers' declining savings rate.
"I am not alarmed, because hundreds of millions of individuals across the United States are making the decision every day whether to buy or save," he said. "This is the way markets work."
The government's responsibility is to maintain a stable system in which people can make that decision, he said.
During his hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Martinez, the chairman of Orange County, Fla., fielded questions about the Community Reinvestment Act.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, the temporary Senate Banking chairman, and other Democrats emphasized Mr. Martinez's powerful life story, and indicated that they would vote for his confirmation as soon as possible. Mr. Martinez was 15 years old when he was part of an airlift of immigrants from Cuba to the United States and taken in by a foster family.
At the hearing, Mr. Martinez emphasized his experience as the director of an Orlando community bank, United American Bank of Central Florida, and stressed the importance of the CRA to provide affordable and fair credit for all Americans.
"The CRA has a very important role to play in community-building and allowing all Americans to reach the dream of owning a home," he said. "One of the things I did in the private sector was serve as a director of a bank. I know that at times it can be a headache for the private sector to fulfill the CRA requirement, but I also know that it is the right thing to do."
Mr. Martinez mentioned that he "fought feverishly" against predatory lending and that he would continue to promote financial counseling for low- and moderate-income families.