Will GOP opposition stop Mel Watt’s confirmation?

When President Obama nominated Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, he praised the North Carolinian’s experience.

“Mel has led efforts to rein in unscrupulous mortgage lenders,” the president said. “He’s helped protect consumers from the kind of reckless risk-taking that led to the financial crisis in the first place. And he’s fought to give more Americans in low-income neighborhoods access to affordable housing.”

The President made the announcement in the same week he introduced Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to replace Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary, extending North Carolina’s moment in the political spotlight and allaying criticism that his second-term high level appointments lacked diversity.

The Congressional Black Caucus was pleased. Its chair, Marcia L. Fudge, said in a statement that Watt is “uniquely qualified, has the specialized knowledge and the commitment required to address our nation’s broken housing market that has affected so many families across this country,” and predicted he would be “the transformational leader the FHFA needs to make sure this country stays on the path to full economic recovery.”

However, Watt’s nomination still has to be approved by the Senate. When I spoke with him the day after his White House appearance with the president, he was ready.

“I will do what I need to do in the process to complete the information for the United States Senate, show up when they ask me to, meet with the people that I need to meet with,” he said. “The Senate will set that time table.”

Whether that will be enough is something he wouldn’t speculate on. The initial response to his nomination has been both support and criticism from across the ideological spectrum, not unexpected considering the role of housing financing in the country’s economic upheavals.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was speaking for those who favor tighter lending restrictions when he said in a statement, “I could not be more disappointed in this nomination. This gives new meaning to the adage that the fox is guarding the henhouse.”

Watt’s fellow North Carolinian, GOP Sen. Richard Burr, couched his congratulations in an agenda, saying he was confident Watt “will work hard to protect taxpayers from future exposure to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  I look forward to working with Rep. Watt in his new role to find new ways to facilitate more private sector involvement in the housing and mortgage markets.”

The state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, was unconditional in her support for the man she called “a champion for affordable housing in North Carolina and across the country.” She said Watt “has worked tirelessly to protect families from predatory and deceptive lending practices. With experience in the private sector and more than two decades of service on the House Financial Services Committee, Mel has the background, skills, and history of bipartisan cooperation necessary to confront the challenges facing our recovering housing market.”

While MoveOn.org also applauded Watt’s nomination, other progressives have said he is too close to financial and banking interests. Watt acknowledged his position representing his North Carolina congressional district, which includes both major banks and financial firms and the low-income and minority borrowers most affected by the foreclosure crisis.

“I’ve been answering these questions for 21 years now,” he told me. “I represent a district that’s heavily financial industry-oriented; I represent a district that’s heavily consumer-oriented. My attitude has been over the years if the financial industry is saying I’m too consumer-oriented, and the consumers are saying I’m too industry-oriented, I’m probably walking the right line in finding an appropriate balance. … That’s exactly the same position I’ve been in.”

Watt said he’s “hopeful” senators will look at his record and talk with him.

“I can’t go up there and impose my will on this position,” he said. “I have to analyze what’s in the benefit of taxpayers and what’s going to get us out of this economic meltdown that we’re in as far as housing is concerned.”

Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3