Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questions regulators during a Senate… ( Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )
WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a darling of liberals who has been mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential contender, had kept a deliberately low profile since her election in November.
In less than five minutes last week, however, the new Massachusetts senator announced her presence in the nation's capital and showed she plans to be a thorn in the side of the big financial institutions.
At her first hearing as a member of the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, Warren chastised banking regulators for not trying to put more executives from big banks in jail for their roles in the financial crisis.
The exchange, in which Warren criticized the push to settle cases against big banks instead of pushing for convictions, has become a hit on YouTube. Four videos of the exchange have drawn a total of more than 1 million viewers as of Monday.
"I'm really concerned that too big to fail has become too big for trial," she told the heads of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission and top officials from other agencies.
Warren very easily could have been on the other side of the dais last week as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But she ran for Congress after Senate Republicans made clear they would block her appointment to head the agency she conceived and then helped launch as an Obama administration aide.
Tradition-bound Senate veterans do not take well to newcomers seeking a big spotlight. So Warren laid low after her election victory over Republican incumbent Scott Brown in the nation's most expensive Senate race.
She secured a spot on the banking committee and largely stayed out of the spotlight. On Thursday, she patiently waited to question regulators at the end of a hearing on Wall Street reform.
When she got her turn, she didn't waste any of her limited time on the clock.
Warren pressed regulators with the same pointed but measured questions that helped launch her career in Washington as head of the watchdog panel for the $700-billion bailout fund.
"Now, I know there have been some landmark settlements," Warren said. "But we face some very special issues with big financial institutions. If they can break the law and drag in billions in profits and then turn around and settle, paying out of those profits, they don't have much incentive to follow the law.
"So the question I really want to ask is about how tough you are," she continued. "About how much leverage you really have in these settlements. And what I'd like to know is, tell me a little bit about the last few times you've taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial."
The question drew some applause from the audience in the hearing room. And the seven regulators did not seem eager to answer.
When none of them initially volunteered, Warren asked, "Anybody?"
She called on Thomas Curry, head of the OCC, who said the agency did not have to bring banks to trial because it could use consent orders to achieve its goal. Warren then pressed SEC Chairwoman Elisse Walter, who said she'd have to get back to the senator with specific information.
"Anyone else want to tell me about the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial?" Warren said.
With her time running low, Warren finished up with a shot at the nation's largest banks. She asked if the reason the stocks of many Wall Street banks was trading below book value was because investors question if the firms were "adequately transparent and adequately managed."
She told reporters on Thursday she would continue pushing regulators to keep a close eye on the big banks.
"What this hearing was about was to make clear to the regulators that we expect them to use all of their tools in regulating Wall Street," she told reporters.
Warren's staff posted the exchange on YouTube, as did some other people. One video was titled, "Elizabeth Warren Smacks Down Wall Street Bankers," while another touted the clip as "Warren embarrasses banking regulators."
The most popular of those videos had been viewed 735,526 times as of Monday.
It was all part of a small coming-out for Warren last week. She also held news conferences two days in a row with some Senate colleagues criticizing Senate Republicans for blocking a confirmation vote on Richard Cordray, who President Obama has renominated to head the consumer bureau.
At each news conference, she waited her turn and spoke last. But just as in her first banking hearing, she did not hold back.
"The notion that a minority can hold up the laws of the United States by using the filibuster on an appointment is fundamentally wrong," she said.