By Vicki Needham - 12/10/13 12:32 PM EST
Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) is expected to be confirmed later Tuesday 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 the first steps in the Senate Tuesday afternoon, ensuring that he will become the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) as the upper chamber employed its new nominations rules.
Under the new rules, Watt moved forward on a 57-40 cloture vote to set up eight hours of debate on his nomination. Previously, 60 votes were needed to get cloture but Watt benefited from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) invoking the nuclear option, which meant only a simple majority of 51 votes is needed for nominations below the Supreme Court level.
Later Tuesday, Watt should sail through the Senate to confirmation with the support of all Democrats and his fellow North Carolinian, Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
The 20-year House veteran is in South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial service and will miss the vote, as he is not expected to land in Washington until sometime Wednesday.
Despite decades of experience, Republicans have argued that 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 have said that the agency needs a nonpolitical technocrat who can delve into the complexity of mortgage finance at the independent agency.
During the series of votes on Watt, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) challenged the rules change, but that effort failed.
Republicans have expressed their displeasure with the change in rules, and they argue that Reid's move isn't designed to get any one specific nominee through the chamber but is, instead, a "power grab."
“As I indicated last month, this was a pure power grab," McConnell said Tuesday morning on the Senate floor.
"It’s about an attitude on the left that says the ends justify the means — whatever it takes. That’s why we’re here today. And that’s why I’ll be opposing this nomination."
But Democrats clearly wanted to push through Watt.
President Obama and other Democratic lawmakers, including the Congressional Black Caucus, vowed to ramp up their efforts to get him through the Senate, since Watt first failed to get through in October.
Democrats also have chastised Republicans for failing to approve a sitting member of Congress.
Housing industry advocates also 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.