The Senate's Democratic majority, taking advantage of weakened filibuster rules, pushed through Rep. Mel Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency Tuesday night, weeks after Republicans initially blocked his confirmation.
The Senate voted 57-41 to confirm the North Carolina congressman to run the agency that oversees the government-controlled mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The tally was mostly along party lines, with Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio the only Republicans to support Watt, while no Democrats opposed him.
President Obama had lobbied hard for Watt since he nominated him in May. Watt, who has served in the House since 1993, also received strong backing from civil rights and minority groups.
"He’s the right person to protect Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day, and he’ll be the right regulator to make sure the kind of [housing] crisis we just went through never happens again," the president said following Watt's confirmation.
The soft-spoken Watt rarely if ever has been portrayed as a partisan ideologue. He has served for years on a committee dealing with housing matters, which supporters said made him an ideal candidate to head the FHFA.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Watt has been an "exceptional champion of America’s economic security" during his 20 years in Congress.
"Hailing from a district with the most banking and financial institutions outside of Wall Street, he is uniquely suited to the task of striking a much-needed balance between credible financial industry concerns and the security of American consumers and homeowners," Pelosi said of Watt, whose congressional district is home to several financial companies including Bank of America and the East Coast headquarters of Wells Fargo.
But Republicans, who used a filibuster in October to block Watt's nomination, said he didn't have the proper work experience to run the agency.
“America needs someone with technical expertise and experience to run Fannie and Freddie's conservator and ensure that we don't repeat the same mistakes that led to the last financial crisis," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in October. “This is the second FHFA nominee that President Obama has sent who did not meet those standards."
Influential outside conservative groups also pressed Republicans to oppose Watt, accusing him of supporting "big government" policies and speculating he would expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instead of privatizing the lenders, as they prefer.
"Mel Watt is now in a position to act on the big-government housing policies he's espoused for the past 20 years," said Dan Holler, a spokesman with Heritage Action for America. "We're in for a rough ride."
Watt's confirmation was made possible because of new Senate rules unilaterally ushered in by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Frustrated with the minority Republicans' repeated blocks of Obama nominations, Reid last month invoked the "nuclear option" to change the chamber's rules so that the confirmation of judicial and other White House nominees — excluding Supreme Court nominees — would require only a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber rather than the 60 votes previously needed.
The controversial move was rebuked by Republicans, who accused Reid of running roughshod over minority party rights.
Earlier Tuesday, Patricia Ann Millett became the first Obama nominee to win confirmation under the new rules after the Senate approved her bid for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.