WASHINGTON — Ben Bernanke won a second term as Federal Reserve chairman on Thursday, as 70 senators voted to confirm him for four more years as the nation's most powerful economic policymaker.
Bernanke's nomination had become uncertain in the past week, as liberals and conservatives alike expressed new reservations about confirming a man who has presided over the worst economic downturn in generations.
But ultimately, a bipartisan majority of the Senate concluded that Bernanke's aggressive actions to combat the crisis, which many argued prevented the recession from becoming a depression, made up for regulatory and other failures by Bernanke and the Fed that contributed to the crisis in the first place. He won confirmation by a wider margin than many Congress-watchers had expected.
"Once the crisis started, he took charge in a way that was unprecedented," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., during the Senate debate. "I believe when the history of this period is written … Bernanke will prove to have been one of the heroes."
Earlier in the afternoon, 77 senators voted to allow a vote to proceed, easily clearing the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. But a number of those who voted to clear that procedural step ultimately voted against confirming Bernanke. In the final tally, he won confirmation 70-30.
Florida's senators were split, with Democrat Bill Nelson voting for Bernanke's reconfirmation and Republican George LeMieux voting against it.
Bernanke, 56, was confirmed by a narrower margin than any previous Fed chairman. The record for most "no" votes was Paul Volcker in 1983, who was confirmed 84-16.
"The Fed is controversial with the American people. Bailouts. Lack of supervision over (bank) holding companies," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.
"Bernanke fiddled while our markets burned," Shelby said. "Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve played a key role in setting the stage for the financial crisis."
Supporter Charles Schumer, D-N-Y., worried that the bitter fight over the nomination would send "the message that the Federal Reserve and its monetary policy decisions are under the thumb of Congress. Businesses will be faced with the prospect that the Fed might not be able to do what's necessary for the economy because of pressure from Congress."
When President Barack Obama nominated Bernanke for a second term in August, it appeared to be smooth sailing toward confirmation. While he had a handful of vehement opponents on the ideological fringe of each party, most senators respected him personally and considered him a safe pick who would reassure financial markets.
But in recent weeks, especially following the surprising Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race for the seat formerly occupied by Ted Kennedy, hostility toward Bernanke has arisen in the Senate. Some senators who had been viewed as safe votes for confirmation expressed new doubts, looking to show their anger at the financial bailouts that Bernanke engineered and the regulatory failures that contributed to the crisis.
Following a weekend of extensive outreach to wavering senators by the White House, including by Obama himself, the confirmation got back on track.