Despite accusations by Republicans that he was not entirely forthcoming about back taxes, and opposition even from some Democrats, Timothy Geithner was confirmed today as treasury secretary by a 60 to 34 vote in the U.S. Senate, and immediately began overseeing the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
The confirmation comes none too soon. The second tranche of TARP money at Geithner's disposal becomes available Tuesday. Of the $700 billion, $288 billion has been spent and $380 has been promised.
Thirty Republicans and three Democrats (Tom Harkin of Iowa, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert Byrd of West Virginia) joined Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont to oppose Geithner's nomination.
Geithner, who failed to pay more than $40,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes from 2001-2004, survived a haranguing on the tax issue by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee last week and will take over at Treasury as President Barack Obama initiates a multipronged strategy to pep up the U.S. economy.
Obama has called his economic response a multilegged stool and the leg Geithner will be tasked with overseeing is the disbursal of the remaining $350 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
That program -- which, as chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Geithner had a hand in creating -- was overseen by his predecessor Henry Paulson, President Bush's final treasury secretary.
Paulson persuaded Congress to provide the money in a rush last Fall, but was criticized from both sides of the aisle for not doing enough to track the money after it went to troubled banks, and for not forcing the banks to use the money to spur lending.
Just 52 senators voted earlier this month in favor of giving Obama access to the second $350 billion tranche of the TARP funding, compared with 74 who voted to authorize the program last year.
Recasting TARP as a program that has helped the economy as a whole and wasn't just a bailout for Wall Street will be a top priority for Geithner and Obama, who wants Congress to sign another, even larger check, to spur economic growth.
Obama is scheduled to meet with House and Senate Republicans Tuesday to woo their support for his $825 billion stimulus plan.
Geithner has been credited with foreseeing some of the complicated problems arising from the opaque and unregulated credit default swap market, a web of private insurance bets that could be worth $30 trillion. In addition to doling out the TARP funds, making sense of the credit default market will be high among Geithner's tasks.
His confirmation drew votes from both sides of the aisle, often because, despite the tax issue, many senators believe Geithner to be uniquely qualified for the job.
"To suggest that Tim Geithner is unqualified because of this tax issue is to fail to understand his contribution to this country," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
"Timothy Geithner is more aware of the complexities of the issues facing us than maybe any other individual the president might have chosen," said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Hatch praised Geithner for trying to chart a "bipartisan course," and said his knowledge of economic policy from years at the Fed, the IMF and earlier at the Treasury Department, will allow him to "hit the ground running on day one and get the economy running again."
But Hatch also said his office got many calls from constituents, angry that the man who is being appointed to oversee the IRS is not "beyond reproach" with his own taxes.
The micro issue of Geithner's taxes was enough to make him unfit to address the country's macro economic issues, according to some Republicans and Democrats.
"How can Mr. Geithner speak with any credibility as the nation's chief tax collector? Would his admonition be do as I say, not as I do?" Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asked before the vote.
Harkin criticized Geithner for his role in crafting the Wall Street bailout, and for not doing more to oversee Citigroup as head of the New York Fed. Geithner, said Harkin, is too close to Wall Street, when "I want a treasury secretary that is going to start banging some heads."
Most of the opposition, however, came from Republicans. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who said he spent part of the weekend puzzling over his own taxes, said on the Senate floor, "Here we are making an exception to the rule and I, for one, think it's not the time to make an exception."
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a middle-of-the-road Republican who often sides with Democrats, opposed him.
In a speech prepared for the Senate floor, Collins said, "Throughout the state of Maine and, indeed, throughout the nation, millions of hard-working Americans pay their taxes on time and in full. Our taxation system is essentially an honor system that depends on self-assessment and honesty. When taxpayers make mistakes, they are expected to correct them promptly and completely. How can we tell the taxpayers that they are expected to comply fully with our tax laws, when these laws have been treated so cavalierly by the person who would lead the Treasury Department and, ultimately, the Internal Revenue Service, when he was applying them to himself?"
When he worked for the International Monetary Fund from 2001 - 2004, Geithner was given a monetary credit by the international organization to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes that would normally be withheld. While he signed a document promising to use the credit to pay his taxes -- more than $40,000 over those four years -- he did not pay half the taxes until an audit uncovered the mistake for two years and the other half shortly before he was nominated to run the Treasury Department. Geithner took responsibility for the mistake, declining to blame Turbo Tax, the software he used to prepare his taxes in 2001 and 2002, for missing the IMF-specific tax issue and told senators it was unintentional, but several Republicans have remained skeptical.
Others believe his failure to pay the taxes was unintentional, but cannot get over the symbolism of appointing a person with tax issues to head the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS.
Many Republicans who disagree with Geithner's economic world view said they would support the nomination to allow Obama to choose his own economic team.
"When a new manager is in town, they do deserve their management team," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., before the committee vote on Geithner's confirmation. That was not the opinion of all Republicans. Joining Collins in opposing Geithner will be Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Minority Whip John Kyl of Arizona, two Republicans who spoke out against him last week.
"Candor is critical," said Kyl, who tangled with Geithner for his evasiveness on the tax issue at the confirmation hearing.
"I'm sad to say, because I very much wanted to support this nomination, that I don't think the requisite candor exists for me to support his nomination with a vote," said Kyl.