Are Maine’s Republican senators performing a political flip-flop and helping gut the consumer protection bureau they voted just last year to create?

Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe say they simply agree with most other GOP senators that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should be changed before the Senate confirms a bureau director.

But the Obama administration and consumer advocates say blocking confirmation of a director is simply a back door way to weaken an agency that most Republicans voted against creating in the first place.

Collins and Snowe were two of just three Republican senators who helped Democrats pass the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul bill that included the new bureau.

“There certainly is a contradiction there,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “The time to raise these objections was before they voted for the bill. The way to raise these objections certainly is not to hold the whole agency hostage.”

Without a director in place, the bureau lacks power over non-bank financial institutions that impact the wallets of millions of Americans, including payday lenders, credit reporting agencies and mortgage servicers.

The only other Republican senator to vote for the financial regulatory legislation last year was Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Brown was the sole GOP senator to vote this month to confirm Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, as the bureau’s director.

But Brown’s vote didn’t give Democrats the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Democrats still would have fallen short even with Collins’ and Snowe’s votes. But the White House hoped Collins and Snowe would view a vote for Cordray as consistent with their support for the final regulatory reform bill, and open a fissure that would lead to more GOP defections.

Snowe voted “present,” rather than “no,” but out of conflict-of-interest concerns, not because she doesn’t agree with the Republican stand blocking Cordray.

Snowe’s husband, former Maine GOP Gov. John McKernan, heads a for-profit college company that profits from the loans its students receive. Snowe said she abstained after hearing a Senate Democrat name student loan companies as among the industries the bureau lacks power over until a director is in place.

Collins and Snowe say Cordray is qualified for the job. They also don’t regret their votes in favor of the overall financial regulatory bill, which they say was sorely needed after the 2008 financial system meltdown.

But they and other Republicans say they want a consumer bureau with a board of directors, not just a single head, and for Congress to have more control over the bureau’s budget.

Collins says she raised concerns about the bureau’s structure during the debate over the original bill and supported a failed GOP attempt to make the bureau a division within an existing agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Snowe says she preferred from the start a bureau that had a board of directors and a budget that was more accountable to Congress. Those are features Republicans say were part of an initial House bill and endorsed by the Obama administration, but changed before final passage.

“It’s a question of what kind of structure (is needed) to manage the bureau,” Snowe said.

Collins and Snowe express disappointment that the White House won’t compromise over the bureau’s structure.

But Democrats dismiss the GOP argument as a not so thinly veiled attempt to snatch victory from last year’s defeat and make the bureau less independent. They charge that the GOP version of a board of directors would be tilted in favor of industry needs, not consumer safeguards, and say there is no need to re-open the debate now and start tinkering with the bureau’s structure.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio says neither party has ever blocked a nomination of someone just “because they didn’t like the construction of the agency,” a claim the fact-checking news organization PolitiFact.com judged accurate.

Consumer advocates are disappointed that Collins and Snowe are going along with the GOP blockade.

“It is a little hard for me to understand because Congress debated, the president signed, they (Collins and Snowe) voted for the bill that included the creation of the bureau as one of its centerpieces,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition that includes consumer and civil rights groups and labor unions. “The bureau’s powers are significantly restrained until it has a director in place. So it is kind of going back and trying to undo what was done.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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