Minority groups cite precedent in pushing Mel Watt

Minority groups and lawmakers ramped up pressure on Senate Republicans Wednesday to agree to confirm Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to a top housing regulator position.

Top-ranking House Democrats and powerhouse minority groups threw their full support behind Watt, one day before he could receive a Senate floor vote to advance his bid to become the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). In doing so, they argued the Senate GOP could upset a tradition running longer than 150 years in which sitting members of Congress are not blocked for top-level nominations.

“It is virtually unprecedented for a sitting member of Congress to be rejected by the U.S. Senate,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who serves with Watt as ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. “I urge his immediate confirmation.”

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Watt has faced tough Republican opposition, with GOP senators contending he lacks the technical expertise for the job overseeing housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But Democrats and a host of civil rights groups said Wednesday that Watt is “eminently qualified,” and that senators would be breaking with a long-standing precedent if they blocked him.

The heads of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus vocally urged Watt’s confirmation Wednesday. They were joined in the push by several major civil rights and affordable housing groups, including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and the Center for Responsible Lending.

All parties struck a similar tone, touting Watt’s years of experience on housing matters and the traditional deference granted to sitting members of Congress seeking confirmation to administration posts.

Wade Henderson, head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said a Watt blockade would “set a disturbing new precedent for our nation.”

“No sitting member of Congress has been successfully filibustered since before the Civil War,” he warned.

Most recently, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) became secretary of State after being confirmed by a vote of 94-3. Hillary Clinton, Ken Salazar and Ray LaHood all received overwhelming support for their bids to join the president in the early days of his first term.

In fact, the last time the Senate blocked a nomination of a sitting member of Congress was in 1843, when the Senate refused to allow Rep. Caleb Cushing to become Treasury secretary under President John Tyler.

But currently, Watt appears to be short on GOP support. He narrowly advanced through the Senate Banking Committee in July on a strict party-line vote, and only Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has vocally backed Watt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed cloture on the nomination Monday, setting up a vote later in the week. Watt will need 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle.

GOP lawmakers have questioned Watt’s lack of a technical background but also expressed concern about whether he would pursue policies like principal reduction to assist struggling homeowners. Liberal groups have long griped that the current FHFA head, Edward DeMarco, has blocked such efforts. Watt refused to rule out such policies during his confirmation hearing.

While Republicans have questioned Watt’s technical know-how, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) pointed to Watt’s decades of work as a lawyer and lawmaker on housing issues as proof he can handle the gig.

“Those who question his qualifications are those who tend to belabor what we call down South ‘book learning,’” the No. 3 House Democrat said.

Watt has also garnered some industry support as well. The Mortgage Bankers Association is among some industry groups urging confirmation.

“Congressman Watt would bring considerable experience to the post of director," said E.J. Burke, MBA's new chairman said in a statement.

Burke said the group is willing to provide whatever technical support Watt needs as he oversees the restructuring of the secondary mortgage market.

Vicki Needham contributed.

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