Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Redemption for Watt, hope for America, chaos in the 12th

Posted By on Tue, Dec 10, 2013 at 4:08 PM

On Tuesday morning, the popular Nelson Mandela quote, "It always seems impossible until it's done," had never been truer for Mel Watt. While the congressman was in South Africa for Mandela's memorial service, the improbable happened in Washington - something got done.

And Watt was redeemed.

Just before lunchtime, the U.S. Senate voted to invoke cloture (57-40) on Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the important procedural hurdle - the one he failed to overcome last time it came up - that will essentially decide the longtime congressman's fate.

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Oct. 31 had to be one of the worst Halloweens of Watt's life. His nomination to lead the agency failed to garner the 60 votes (56-42) needed on the cloture motion to move forward, making him the first sitting member of Congress since 1843 to be rejected by his peers for a cabinet-level role in the executive branch.

The worst part of the rebuff was that it had little to do with Watt, the very sort of affable insider who normally fills that type of administration role. He was simply the latest victim of Washington gridlock.

A consummate center-left politician, Watt is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He also has strong ties to the banking industry after representing the city of Charlotte on Capitol Hill, and he was an influential member of the House Financial Services Committee. Watt is hardly the sort of fire-breathing radical liberal - ala Elizabeth Warren - who would turn the Federal Housing Finance Agency upside down.

Watt's nomination was part of a deeper narrative, a fight between obstructionists in Congress and a White House struggling to get things done in the president's second term. The Republican majority in the House has blocked nearly every major piece of legislation left on President Obama's agenda, from immigration reform to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, while Republicans in the Senate filibustered or stalled the nominations of key administration nominees, from the appellate courts to regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

When Watt went down in October, it was seen as a tragic low point in modern American politics, a symbol of a president paralyzed by the legislative branch and turned into a lame duck with three years left in office.

For Senate Democrats, what happened to Watt and the rejection of Patricia Millett for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia were the last straws. Senate majority leader Harry Reid surprisingly fought for filibuster reform through the "nuclear option," allowing executive appointments and judicial nominees below the Supreme Court to be approved by simple majority rather than the usual 60-vote threshold.

Watt is expected to be confirmed later this evening by a vote of roughly the same margin as earlier.

Here's what to expect: with a budget deal brewing in Congress, the administration is going to need the support of every ally it has to pass it, meaning that even after Watt is confirmed, he may hang around for a few more weeks for that vote before he resigns to take over at the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Once he becomes director, things will turn over to Gov. McCrory to set a date for a special election to fill Watt's vacant 12th district seat. He may decide to hold two elections: a special election to temporarily fill the seat and a regular one to permanently fill it for the next two-year term. The special election primary could come as early as February.

On Monday, former Charlotte City Councilman James "Smuggie" Mitchell announced his candidacy for the seat via Twitter, joining a crowded field that includes George Battle, the lawyer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, state Sen. Malcolm Graham, Charlotte attorney Curtis Osborne and state reps. Alma Adams, Marcus Brandon and Rodney Moore.

With the exception of Adams and Brandon, the candidates are from Mecklenburg County, and all are African American.

Currently, all of the candidates are planning to run for both the special and regular elections for the seat, but some could change their minds and wait for the second election rather than spending money on the temporary seat.

Meanwhile, Watt is moving on to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He will replace acting director Edward DeMarco.

DeMarco and the administration have disagreed over housing policy, so this opens the door for changes at the agency, with the real possibility that Watt will work for lower interest rates on home loans and use the agency as greater source of economic stimulus in the market.

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