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Senate Leaves Watt in Limbo, Along With a Tradition of Deference to One of Their Own

The logjam of confirmations appears to be breaking in the Senate — just in time for the August recess — with one prominent nominee left behind.

The only loser in this game of fast-moving musical chairs is going to be Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, the only member of Congress who’s up for a job in the executive branch this year. It’s a snub of a colleague that has no modern precedent.

The August break probably won’t improve the odds that Watt, the No. 4 Democrat on the Financial Services Committee who is marking his 21st year representing North Carolina, will someday be endorsed to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which would give him significant unilateral power to regulate the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If his nomination is effectively spiked by a cloture vote this fall, which looks to be the best bet at the moment, or if he withdraws in the face of rejection, Watt would be the first sitting member of Congress in decades who’s been nominated for a confirm-able position and then denied by the Senate.

There has been significant trouble for some former senators, most recently this winter, when most of his previous GOP colleagues were against making Chuck Hagel secretary of Defense. But the fate of an incumbent lawmaker’s nomination has been as close to a sure thing as there’s been on the congressional calendar.

The previous five members picked by President Barack Obama for administration jobs all cruised through without any discernible dissent. So did the half-dozen people President George W. Bush plucked from Congress for senior executive branch positions.

What’s different this time? It’s complicated, but there’s no tangible evidence of any personal animosity toward Watt. He seems pretty well regarded in the Senate as a liberal who’s a skilled and willing negotiator on legislation he’s had a hand in writing on both the Financial Services and Judiciary committees, where he’s also risen to fourth in Democratic seniority.

The easiest answer is that the Senate is just as polarized since its filibuster confrontation was averted two weeks ago, with Republicans who feel they were outmaneuvered in that showdown determined to extract some revenge.

They have concluded that Watt is the easiest mark, even suspecting that his past chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus will surely lead some to suggest the GOP opposition is to some degree racially motivated.

Watt has become their target for retribution partly by default for a couple of reasons. The diffusing of the “nuclear option” essentially committed the Senate to filling all the seats on the National Labor Relations Board for the first time in a decade. The National Rifle Association has relaxed its resistance to making Minneapolis federal prosecutor B. Todd Jones the first confirmed director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And the weak-on-Israel campaign never gained traction sufficient to stop Samantha Power from becoming envoy to the United Nations.

They also have more pro-active reasons for opposing Watt, which center on their fundamental disagreements with Obama about how federal housing policy should be carried out. Republicans expect, for example, that he would allow the president to carry out his plan to permit “underwater” home owners — the ones who owe more on their mortgages than the worth of their houses — to reduce the principal on their mortgages in a way that could expose the government to significant expense.

To that end, they are totally comfortable sticking with the regulatory approach to the housing market of the acting director, Edward DeMarco, who came to the agency in the Bush administration. The influential conservative Club for Growth is also pushing to keep the status quo.

For the sake of a sound bite, though, they have reduced that discord to the simple declaration that the congressman is not qualified for the position, which they say is so complicated and fraught with political complications that it’s best filled by a policy technocrat.

But that’s a potentially tough rationale to stick with when the lawmaker they’re talking about has been central to shaping federal housing finance policy since the early 1990s. He’s someone who not only represents Charlotte, the South’s main banking center, but also proposed legislation almost a decade ago that would have cracked down on the sort of high-risk subprime loans that helped fuel the 2008 financial crisis.

There are also the potential pitfalls over the long term for the Senate itself. Senators may come to regret setting the precedent that members of Congress should be disqualified for some jobs because of the very nature of their work as politicians elected to write the laws the regulators then carry out.

“There are some jobs I’m not sure any member of Congress is qualified to have,” said the No. 3 Republican on Senate Banking, Bob Corker of Tennessee, in explaining his rationale for opposing Watt.

“There are some people who have been around here for longer than I have who aren’t qualified for some administration jobs,” echoed Sen. John McCain.

The Arizona Republican been around long enough to have been in the minority that voted to confirm John Tower as secretary of Defense in 1989. He was rejected anyway, on the grounds that his personal failings were too profound for such a big job, four years after retiring as a power player senator from Texas.

Nothing remotely akin to that collegial spurn has happened since.

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