By Ramsey Cox
Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Rep. Mel Watt’s nomination to serve as one of the nation’s top housing regulators.
The Senate voted 56-42 to end debate on Watt’s (D-N.C.) nomination to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), but 60 votes were needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said Wednesday that Watt's confirmation was "a top economic priority for this White House." The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director since it was formed five years ago, after the housing crisis.
Republicans see Watt as someone who is likely to favor ongoing government intervention in the housing market. Groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action called on senators to vote against Watt.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said he didn’t support Watt’s nomination because regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was too much “unchecked power” and Watt wasn’t qualified.
“He’s a good man,” Toomey said. “[But] I think this is the wrong job for this good man.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Watt deserved an up-or-down vote. He voted against the cloture motion in a procedural move so he can call the nomination up again at another time.
“By any measure, Congressman Watt is qualified to help struggling homeowners recover from the worst economic downturn in generations,” Reid said. “And my Republican colleagues should give him the up-or-down vote he deserves.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president was "absolutely not" giving up on Watt's nomination.
"It is enormously disappointing that Republicans would filibuster this nomination of a highly qualified nominee," Carney said. "We hope that those senators will reconsider that vote and that Mr. Watt will be confirmed in the future."
But the White House spokesman refused to speculate about why Watt's nomination had failed.
"I think you need to ask those senators who made this choice why and examine their reasoning," he said. "We're just disappointed by it."
Carney did, however, indicate that he did not believe the vote was racially motivated.
The press secretary said the "kneejerk obstruction" was "about politics."
"We hope there is an opportunity for senators to reconsider," he said.
Watt has served on the House Financial Services Committee for nearly 20 years and drafted parts of the Dodd-Frank bill to prevent predatory mortgage lending.
“It is virtually unprecedented for a sitting Member of Congress to be rejected by the U.S. Senate,” Rep. Maxine Water (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Blocking the nomination of someone as qualified as Mel Watt has deprived the FHFA of a strong leader who is much needed to confront the challenges that lie ahead. I do not believe we could find anyone better than Mel Watt to do this job.”
"It's a bit disappointing and that's as kind as I can be," Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said.
The Senate has been working all week on executive branch and judicial nominees. The Senate has already cleared the nominations of Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communications Commission, Richard Griffin to be general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board and Alan Estevez to be a principal deputy undersecretary of Defense.
Reid said GOP obstruction has created a “backlog” of Obama nominees, and vowed that the Senate would continue to work through some “critical” executive branch nominees this week.
The Senate still has to consider the nomination of Patricia Millett to be a U.S. judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, but Republicans are expected to block her nomination.
Carney said that Millett was an "extraordinarily qualified nominee" and that Republican votes to block her was "astoundingly hypocritical."
Many Republicans have said they don't think the panel needs additional judges to handle the current case load. But Carney noted during the Bush administration, Republicans voted to fill the same seats when the case load was half what it is today.
Carney refused to comment on whether the president supported employing the so-called "nuclear option" to force nominees through the Senate, saying they would "defer to Sen. Reid."
"We would simply like to see our highly qualified nominees conferred," Carney said.
—Vicki Needham, Justin Sink and Erik Wasson contributed to this article, which was updated at 1:45 p.m.