WASHINGTON — Rep. Mel Watt was confirmed to a top housing finance post Tuesday after Senate Democrats cleared a path for him by changing filibuster rules that Republicans had used to block his confirmation.
The Senate voted 57-41 to make the Charlotte, N.C., Democrat the newest leader of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
President Barack Obama nominated Watt, a longtime member of the House Financial Services Committee, to lead the agency in May. On Tuesday, Obama commended the vote and said Watt was key to building a “rock-solid” housing system.
“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,” Obama said in a statement.
Republicans had prevented the confirmation vote for months, but Senate Democrats last month changed filibuster rules to make it harder to block White House nominees.
Senate banking committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said Watt’s confirmation would provide needed certainly to the housing market as the economy continued to recover from the financial crisis.
But Republicans described Watt as a political appointee who didn’t have the needed expertise for a complex job that oversees more than $5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“The job he’s being appointed to is incredibly technical,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I can’t think of anyone in the Senate I would have picked to do that job. It’s nothing personal against him.”
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, asked senators to vote against Watt. He charged that Obama had disregarded the need to have a nonpolitical leader in a position with national and global ramifications.
“This is not a Cabinet position where the nominee is supposed to be an advocate for the president,” Crapo said.
Watt, who’s attending the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Watt’s job would be to supervise and regulate Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, their trillion-dollar portfolio and roughly 12,000 employees.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which advocated for Watt to get the post, called him an exceptional leader who’ll protect consumers and ensure accountability.
“Congressman Watt has a long history of advocating against predatory lending and the mortgage practices that caused millions of families to lose their homes,” Fudge said in statement.
The Senate invoked a parliamentary move last month to change the chamber’s rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority instead of the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold needed to advance to a final vote.
The decision had been expected to allow Senate Democrats to push through Watt’s nomination, as well as several key judicial nominees.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who studies federal nominations, said the vote was politically significant. If the filibuster rules hadn’t changed, Watt would have been the first congressman rejected for this type of post since 1843.
“Much of the debate was politics as usual and not about him,” Tobias said. “The vote on Watt also means that a number of other high-level executive nominees whom the GOP has stalled will receive up or down votes.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the floor Tuesday morning to criticize Democrats before votes on Watt and the nomination of Patricia Millett to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He called the rule change a “power grab” that defied two centuries of tradition.
“Washington Democrats, unfortunately, are focusing all of their energy on saying and doing anything, anything it takes to circumvent the representatives of the people,” McConnell said, “but ultimately, ultimately, they will be accountable to the American people.”
William Douglas contributed to this report.