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Treasury Nomination Sparks Fight Among Democrats


When Congress returns next year, it will consider the nomination of Antonio Weiss to be undersecretary of treasury for domestic finance. Now, this job sounds pretty obscure. But it has sparked a big fight within the Democratic Party. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Antonio Weiss is the head of investment banking at the Lazard firm, and he's a specialist in global mergers and acquisitions. That's one of the reasons that Elizabeth Warren, the leader of the populist wing of the Democratic Party, says he's the wrong person for a job that, among other things, overseas domestic banking. Warren spoke recently at a conference sponsored by group of liberal economic think tanks.


SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Mr. Weiss was part of the Burger King inversion deal that moved the U.S. company to Canada as part of a merger that would cut down on its tax obligations. Also note that Mr. Weiss's friends at Lazard are giving him a golden parachute valued at about $20 million as he goes into government service. For me, this is just one spin of the revolving door too many. Enough is enough.

LIASSON: The fight over Weiss is getting heated. The Washington Post criticized Weiss's opponents for conducting a, quote, "populist witch hunt." The White House is coordinating a vigorous defense for Weiss. Dan Pfeiffer is President Obama's senior advisor.


DAN PFEIFFER: When people look at his positions and his experience, they will see that he's the right person for the job. People have tried to make some political hay out of this. But these nominations are about the person who's going to do the job, and Mr. Weiss would do an excellent job.

LIASSON: One Weiss defender is Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way. Bennett says this is an odd fight for the left to pick.

MATT BENNETT: Democrats should not be in the business of minimizing Wall Street excesses or culpability for the recession or any of that. But Antonio Weiss is not the poster child for any of those Wall Street problems. He's undoubtedly qualified, and he's a true progressive.

LIASSON: Weiss does have the backing of the liberal Center for American Progress, where he was a co-author of a plan that called for a big tax hike on the wealthy. To Steve Rattner, an investment banker and former Obama administration official, the fight over Weiss is a proxy battle.

STEVE RATTNER: I have trouble believing that this controversy about Antonio Weiss is really about him. I have to believe that this is really part of a large narrative within the Democratic Party as to what our values and our approach should be to these kinds of questions.

LIASSON: Questions like whether the Obama administration has been tough enough on the big banks and how to address income stagnation in the middle class. In that sense, Weiss was the wrong guy at the right time, with the bad luck to be nominated when populist, anti-Wall Street sentiment is red-hot inside the Democratic Party. Minnesota Senator Al Franken is a Weiss opponent.

SENATOR AL FRANKEN: A lot of people in Minnesota and around the country believe that the economy is sort of rigged from the top. And I don't think it necessarily sends the right signal to put somebody who's supposed to be head of domestic banking from a Wall Street firm...

LIASSON: Outside progressive groups have also gotten into the fight. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: It is a symbol of a bigger issue, which is that the government of the United States of America needs to help do whatever it can to address the concerns of regular Americans, of people who play by the rules, of people who pay their taxes, of people who have felt wage stagnation.

LIASSON: This is a real problem for the party that's supposed to represent the middle class. Middle-class incomes don't buy a middle-class lifestyle anymore. And Democrats are struggling to come up with a solution. And that's what's at the heart of the divide between the progressive wing of the party and, at least for the moment, the Obama administration. Matt Bennett says it's a debate about what direction the party will take in the future.

BENNETT: Fundamentally, this boils down to a question of whether the economic narrative for the Democratic Party should be focused on fairness or whether it should be focused on growth and prosperity for the middle class. And one can't exist without the other. But there is a pretty strong debate about which should be the kind of predominant narrative for Democrats going forward.

LIASSON: And the nomination of Antonio Weiss to be the undersecretary of treasury is just the most recent opportunity to have that debate. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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