WASHINGTON -- Republicans sent the Obama administration back to the drawing board Thursday, blocking an up-or-down vote on the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the little-known but vital Federal Housing Finance Agency.
With Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the Senate, having just sworn in new Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., senators fell short of the 60 votes needed to end debate and move to a vote on the nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted with those opposed once it was clear that he lacked the necessary votes, allowing him to bring up the nomination again in coming weeks.
“Despite this setback, I remain thankful for President Obama’s nomination and humbled by his confidence in me,” Watt said in a brief statement. “I do not plan to withdraw as the nominee for the position and remain hopeful that we will prevail when the motion for reconsideration is taken up in the Senate.”
The tally was 56-42, with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and James Inhofe, R-Okla., not casting votes.
“I will exercise my right as majority leader to reconsider these nominations at some point in the very near future,” Reid said in a statement. Aides suggested that would be within weeks. “I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change, and I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”
The White House reacted angrily.
“It is enormously disappointing that Republicans would filibuster this nomination of a highly qualified nominee,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said shortly after the vote. “And we hope that . . . those senators will reconsider that vote and that Mr. Watt will be confirmed in the future."
The Federal Housing Finance Agency oversees the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It was put into government conservatorship at the start of the 2008 financial crisis and its future is a subject of intense congressional debate.
Only two Republicans supported the move to end debate on Watt, one of the highest-ranking minority lawmakers. One was a home-state senator, Richard Burr, and the other was Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Burr’s office had no comment on the vote, pointing to an earlier statement of support for his fellow North Carolinian.
The Congressional Black Caucus said it would be the first rejection of a long-serving sitting member of good standing since 1843, when the Senate rejected Massachusetts Rep. Caleb Cushing for the post of treasury secretary.
“What happened today has only occurred once in the history of this Congress,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said in a statement. “This is a disgrace to this body and a disservice to the American people.”
North Carolina’s other senator, Democrat Kay Hagan, said “Mel would continue to champion policies that benefit middle-class families in North Carolina and around the country.”
Republicans accuse Watt of supporting lower requirements for obtaining a mortgage, which contributed to the need for the government to take over the quasi-government entities. They favor someone with greater experience in housing finance and are happy with acting Director Ed DeMarco, who’s resisted administration efforts to relax tight standards on mortgage lending.