WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Janet Yellen on Monday as the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve, elevating an advocate of fighting unemployment and a backer of the central bank's efforts to spur the economy with low interest rates and massive bond purchases.
Yellen, 67, will replace Ben Bernanke, who is stepping down after serving as chairman for eight years dominated by the Great Recession and the Fed's efforts to combat it.
Senators confirmed her by a vote of 56-26, with numerous absences caused by airline flight delays forced by arctic temperatures around much of the country. All 45 voting Democrats were joined by 11 Republicans in supporting Yellen, while 26 Republicans voted against her.
Vice chair of the Fed since 2010, Yellen will begin her four-year term Feb. 1. With the economy rebounding from the depths of the recession — but only modestly so far — many economists expect her to focus on how to nurture growth without putting it into overdrive, which could risk fueling inflation.
"The big debate will be when the Fed should tighten and how much, rather than when to step on the gas pedal and how hard," predicted Bill Cheney, chief economist for John Hancock Financial Services, who envisions a growing economy this year.
Under Bernanke, the Fed has driven short-term interest rates down to near zero and flushed money into the economy with huge bond purchases, which it has just started to ease. Yellen, a strong Bernanke ally, is expected to continue that policy.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Yellen previously headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, chaired President Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers and has been an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
During a brief debate on her nomination, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, lauded Yellen, who was one of the first to warn in 2007 of a housing bubble that could burst and hurt the entire economy.
"She understands how risky financial practices deep inside the largest Wall Street banks can have a terrible and terrifying impact on American families," Brown said.