Angry Dems beef up fight for Watt

Greg Nash

Obama's choice to lead the housing agency has been blocked, so far, by Senate Republicans.

Congressional Democrats are furious about the way Senate Republicans have blocked Rep. Mel Watt’s bid to take over a crucial housing regulator.

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The North Carolina Democrat's battle to head up the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) sets a unique tone in the Senate where confirmation fights are nothing new but have become particularly brutal under President Obama. 

Now, House Democrats are fighting for one of their own.

Watt is a 20-year veteran of the House, and his failure to scale a procedural hurdle in the upper chamber has irked congressional Democrats who are digging in for a fresh fight.  

Senate Republicans insist that their nearly unanimous opposition to Watt is based on concerns about his policies and experience.

Meanwhile, Democrats argue that the GOP is not only upending a tentative truce the Senate struck in July on stalled nominees, but also a longstanding unwritten rule of the chamber, which typically has advanced fellow lawmakers to nominated posts with overwhelming vote totals. 

Watt fell short of the needed 60 votes to advance, 56-42, with just two Republicans voicing support.

That means supporters will need to convince three more Republicans to support him if he wants to break the filibuster. 

Despite the setback, Watt is standing pat, saying he won't withdraw his name from consideration just yet. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants to bring up Watt for another vote in the “very near future.” 

It will have to be soon, as Watt needs to decide by the end of February if he should run for reelection with a bevy of interested candidates circling for his seat. 

White House officials called Watt's confirmation a "top economic priority" for President Obama and said he would be relentless in getting Watt confirmed. 

"It's clearly important to the president; he's going to stay at it," Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said this week. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House would continue working with the Senate and blasted "knee-jerk obstruction" of Obama's nominees.

With that push came complaints from some Democratic congressional aides that the White House didn't do enough to push through Watt’s nomination, even as most of the frustration is aimed at Senate Republicans who have shown that a temporary truce the chamber struck on nominees this summer was just that. 

But an administration official told The Hill that the White House has no doubt that the president did his part to advance Watt, and instead believes Republican politics should be the focus of any ire. 

The official pointed to the president personally lobbying lawmakers on the nomination, alongside Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. 

Senior administration officials met housing industry leaders on Monday — several of whom reiterated their support of Watt — and top officials held a press call on Wednesday ahead of the Senate vote.

A Democratic aide who worked directly with the White House on the nomination said the administration has made clear the fight is not over, and the White House, up to and including the president, conducted aggressive outreach on and off the Hill since Watt was first tapped for the position.

If confirmed, Watt would take the reins of the FHFA, which oversees housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

That oft-overlooked regulator has also been the source of intense liberal angst in recent years, as acting Director Edward DeMarco has resisted repeated calls to allow Fannie and Freddie to provide more relief to struggling homeowners.

He has argued that those moves would do damage to their finances, keeping taxpayers on the hook for any additional losses. 

Liberal groups have repeatedly called for his job, with some going so far as to protest in front of his private residence. 

Meanwhile, Republicans have backed DeMarco's stance, making it even more difficult for the Obama administration to produce a nominee who would be deemed acceptable. 

Watt is actually the second of Obama’s FHFA picks to fall short. 

Joseph Smith, then the top banking regulator in North Carolina, was held up by GOP opposition in 2010, with critics arguing he would not be sufficiently independent of the administration.

But some housing industry experts argue that Smith would have been the technocrat that Republicans argue Watt is not.

They say that, at some point, the Senate will have to act on someone that many of the members may not like 100 percent but who will be able to usher through the expected massive overhaul of the mortgage finance system. 

Watt can count on his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to contribute to the next push. 

They were visible backers throughout the nomination process and gathered civil rights groups this week to reiterate their support. 

Several CBC members packed into the Senate Banking Committee hearing room when his nomination was considered, and others were seen on the Senate floor monitoring the failed vote Thursday.

They have repeatedly said that Watt, with two decades of experience in Congress, a legal background and an Ivy League education, was eminently qualified for the job.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans insist they like Watt personally — they just don’t like him for this job.

GOP Lawmakers told The Hill they had ample concerns about Watt’s ability to handle the technical workload of the job overseeing the multi-trillion dollar portfolios of Fannie and Freddie. 

They also wondered if his political background and partisan alliances would prevent him from acting independently, and worried he would pursue policies they opposed. 

But they still like him.