Friday, November 1, 2013

Mel Watt, the latest victim of unprecedented Washington gridlock

Posted By on Fri, Nov 1, 2013 at 12:25 PM

Thursday's vote to block Democratic Congressman Mel Watt's nomination to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency is unprecedented in the modern era of American politics - the last time Congress rejected a sitting member's nomination to a cabinet-level position was in 1843.

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Watt fell four votes short of the 60 needed on the cloture motion to survive a Republican filibuster. Senators voted mostly along party lines, with only two Republicans - Richard Burr of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio - voting for Watt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was the only Democrat to vote against Watt, but it was a procedural move to preserve the matter so that it can be brought up again.

Here are some takeaways from the vote:

- Thursday's vote was simply the latest move in a continued battle between the administration and Republicans in Congress, one that has been waged over the budget and, unfortunately, over appointees and judicial nominees. Conservatives are committed to blocking President Obama's agenda in any manner they can - even if that means keeping the president from staffing agencies or putting judges on the bench. Conservative groups are pushing hard against the administration as well. The Club for Growth pressured Republican senators to oppose Watt.

- Thursday's vote revealed how little influence Burr has over his fellow Republicans in the Senate. As a friend of Watt's and a fellow member of the North Carolina delegation, Burr was willing to go to bat for him. Ultimately, only one other Republican backed Watt.

But perhaps the result had less to do with Burr's clout and more to do with partisanship in general. Right after the Watt vote, Senate Republicans blocked Patricia Millett's nomination for the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit. Sen. Rand Paul is threatening the nomination of Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve.

- After four years of obstruction, congressional Democrats vowed to reform the way Washington does business (especially the filibuster) during Obama's second term. The so-called "nuclear option" of changing Senate rules was put on the table in July to break up the gridlock. Republicans eventually agreed to a compromise, approving five of seven of Obama's key nominees at the time, in exchange for Democrats dropping the idea. But with Thursday's obstruction, Democrats are warning that the nuclear option could be back on the table.

But several powerful Senate Democrats, like Carl Levin of Michigan, are skeptical of using the option for fear that it would forever change the Senate. And anyway, it's unlikely that any Republicans would support it. What is possible is that Harry Reid could threaten the option while pursuing approval of a package of nominees that probably would include Watt. Such a maneuver would work similar to the threat of breaching the debt ceiling, with it coming down to whether Republicans actually believe Reid would try to use the option. It's a game of who blinks first.

- Watt has represented the 12th District since 1993. When Obama nominated him in April, seven Democrats from across Watt's snake-like gerrymandered district banked on his confirmation and announced they'd run for the potential open seat. Those vying for his potential seat are state Sen. Malcolm Graham, state Reps. Alma Adams, Beverely Earle, Rodney Moore and Marcus Brandon, Charlotte attorney Curtis Brandon, and George Battle, the general counsel for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board.

Now the question is whether Watt will run for re-election. He has said publicly that he might if his confirmation failed. He claims to have shut down his fundraising operation - he raised just $10 during the year's third quarter of fundraising - once he was nominated as a matter of principle. But others believe he's grown tired of Congress and won't seek another term regardless. Not to mention, he may feel some embarrassment after being rebuked by the Senate, so he has every right to move on.

If Watt does run, we can expect most if not all of those seven challengers to drop out of the race, as he would win the Democratic primary easily, just as he would another general election.

The deadline to file for re-election is Feb. 28. Unless Senate Democrats make his nomination part of a bigger "nuclear option" package or Obama finds a way to do a recess appointment over the holidays, Watt will be sitting around a Christmas tree, forced to decide whether or not to run again. To add to the intrigue, if Watt's nomination is approved later this year, those seven candidates would go into a competitive primary. But if a vacancy happened after Jan. 1, a committee of Democrats from six counties would choose their candidate for the election.

Either way, things are about to get crazy in the 12th.

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