Watt confirmed to head housing finance agency

The Senate voted 57-41 Tuesday to confirm Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) as the top regulator tasked with overseeing an overhaul of the housing finance system.

Watt, who lost his confirmation bid the first time around in October, made it through Tuesday — making him the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). Senate Democrats unilaterally changed the filibuster rules last month, allowing a simple majority to end debate on Watt’s nomination.

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Previously, 60 votes were needed to get cloture, but Watt benefited from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invoking the nuclear option, which means only a simple majority of 51 votes is now needed for nominations below the Supreme Court level. Debate was ended on Watt's nomination earlier Tuesday on a 57-40 vote.

Despite serving in the House for 20 years, Republicans argued Watt is not qualified to become regulator of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are government controlled and dominate the mortgage market.

They said that the agency needs a nonpolitical technocrat who could delve into the complexity of mortgage finance at the independent agency.

“Unfortunately, I must not support this nomination,” said Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) ahead of the vote. “If we are to give anyone this much power, we must be certain he has the knowledge to make those choices. … The director will need to be viewed as an expert not a political figure.”

Two Republican senators voted to confirm Watts, however: Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio.

"Seven months ago, I nominated Mel to lead the agency charged with looking out for hardworking families by enforcing rules of the road for the mortgage industry.  And today, he’s finally been confirmed to do that job," President Obama said in a statement.

"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 crisis we just went through never happens again."

Housing industry advocates put their clout behind Watt, arguing that the most important step for the FHFA is getting a permanent director in place ahead of an expected wind down of Fannie and Freddie.

Congress is working on legislation that would rebalance the mortgage market over several years with an aim at spurring more private investment.

Watt missed the Senate vote because he was still in South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial service. He is schedule to return to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.