Grilling Elizabeth Warren

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Midway through consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren’s appearance before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper had heard enough. Republicans had been grilling Warren all morning, often on the basis of confusion or misinformation, and frequently with an openly hostile tone. It wasn’t quite as uncivil as Warren’s last, infamously contentious appearance before a Republican-led House committee. But it was bad enough for Cooper, who said Warren had endured “more rudeness and disrespect than I have ever seen a committee witness treated [with]. That is not the American way.”The debt limit duel might be Washington’s testiest issue. But few other topics seem to produce as much acrimony on Capitol Hill as the feisty consumer advocate and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, opening on July 21, that she helped to conceive and create, and which Republicans are determined to declaw.

Warren’s future remains quite uncertain: President Obama has yet to signal whether he’ll name her to run the CFPB (she’s currently an adviser helping to start up the bureau). And there are growing signs that Warren may change tacks and challenge GOP Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts, who is up for re-election next fall. But Warren-bashing has become a favorite Republican sport–perhaps for reasons to do with “big government” regulation, perhaps also because it delights their corporate supporters–and so there she was, defending herself and the bureau from Oversight Committee Republicans.

Prior to the hearing, Committee Chairman Issa said he was worried that the CFPB, created with a mission to inform and protect consumers using financial products like credit cards and mortgages, would have the power to “bully” banks. But it was Republicans who risked looking like the bullies. At the hearing, Issa complained that the Treasury Department had not been sufficiently responsive to his document requests (something Warren likely had little to do with). Other Republicans asked whether the CFPB would regulate interest rates (Warren noted that last year’s financial reform law, which created the bureau, doesn’t allow that.) One Republican member, described the CFPB to Warren as “the agency you are going to head in a week,” which is wrong: It’s not at all clear that President Obama will pick a fight with Senate Republicans and nominate Warren or install her by recess appointment, either before the bureau opens July 21 or anytime thereafter.

Taking a particularly hostile tone was North Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who pressed Warren on her charges that the financial industry has engaged in “illegal” practices. “What have you done if you think illegal things have happened?” Gowdy asked. Without making the obvious point that Republicans are blocking her from acquiring the robust consumer protection powers she is seeking, Warren noted that she had advised federal agencies and state attorneys general in their grand legal settlement with mortgage malefactors–and that her reward had been attacks from Republicans on the very committee she was facing. Gowdy’s harsh tone was too much for Cooper, leading to his stern reprimand.

Another tense hearing like this one might leave Warren thinking that a run for Senate doesn’t sound so bad — she could be the one to dish out the grilling. And her discussions about a Massachusetts Senate run seem to have grown more serious. Bay State Democrats are less than thrilled with their current field–there’s even talk of a Martha Coakley comeback, if you can believe it–and are encouraging her to jump into the race to oust Brown and reclaim Teddy Kennedy’s seat. She’ll have to decide soon, though: As a former state Democratic chairman tells the Boston Herald, Warren could “make a great candidate” but that “time’s wasting” for her to get an organization together. Warren may be a Harvard professor with a devoted following of liberal supporters, but she’s a native Oklahoman has no real political roots in the state.

Warren also has the “encouragement” of the Wall Street Journal, which Thursday morning editorialized in favor of her giving up the CFPB cause and putting her ideas to the public test in Massachusetts. The Journal‘s point was mostly sarcastic. But it may augur the ultimate resolution of her political fate. And while running for Senate wouldn’t be easy, she may be wondering it it’s more palatable than the endless grillings Republicans obviously relish giving her.