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 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 "no."
In other action, the Senate plunged into an election-year session Monday that promises to be long on political maneuvering and less so on accomplishment, beginning with a slow-motion struggle over legislation to renew lapsed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
"I'm optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the new year will bring a renewed spirit of cooperation to this chamber," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the first remarks of the year on the Senate floor.
Within moments, he pivoted, accusing Republicans of "never-ending obstruction" to President Obama's proposals over the past five years.
A test vote on the unemployment bill -- the year's first showdown -- was postponed at the last minute until Tuesday morning at the behest of Republicans, who noted that more than a dozen lawmakers had been unable to return to Washington because of bad weather.
Even then the rhetoric was heated. "It's transparent this is a political exercise," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, moments before Reid agreed to the delay.
Meanwhile, Yellen, vice chair of the Fed since 2010, begins her four-year term as leader of the century-old bank on 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, has supported those policies and is expected to continue them until concrete signs emerge of sustained improvement of the economy and job market.
In a written statement, President Obama said Yellen's approval means "the American people will have a fierce champion" who will protect them.
"I am confident that Janet will stand up for American workers, protect consumers, foster the stability of our financial system and help keep our economy growing for years to come," Obama said.
Lobbyists for the banking and financial services sectors issued statements pledging to work with Yellen. Both industries have led a fight to water down restrictions imposed by Obama's 2010 law overhauling how the nation's financial system is regulated.