UPDATE 1-Senate Republicans block Obama nominee for housing post

Margaret Chadbourn
Thursday, 31 Oct 2013 | 1:19 PM ET

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked President Barack Obama's nominee to oversee mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , possibly derailing his chances of securing position.

The defeat on a procedural vote for the nominee, Democratic Representative Mel Watt of North Carolina, came despite an aggressive White House push to round up support. The vote against bringing debate on Watt to a close was 56-42, four short of the needed 60.

The vote broke along party lines, as expected. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote from yea to nea at the last minute to possibly reserve the right to bring back Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The vote won support of all the Senate's Democrats - aside from Reid - and the two independents who vote with them. Two Republicans - Senator Richard Burr, who is from Watt's home state, and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio joined Democrats in the yea votes.

"The procedural failure of this vote does not completely end the Watt nomination saga," said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst with Compass Point Research and Trading.

"But this failure is undeniably a body blow for the nomination. The focus in financial circles will now move squarely to the nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and there is no indication that the White House will be willing to push aggressively for Representative Watt again in the future."

Many Republicans had argued that Watt, who has served in the House of Representatives for two decades, lacked the expertise to oversee the two mortgage firms and some worried he would be unable to resist pressure from the Obama administration to pursue their policy goals.

The failure of the White House to find adequate support, despite a push that included enlisting the help of power industry lobbies, likely means the nomination faces an uphill climb.

Any leadership changes at the FHFA could affect the trillion dollar U.S. mortgage market. Government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back about two-thirds of new mortgages and both the administration, Republicans and Democrats have called for winding them down.

Their regulator is likely to play a role in future efforts to revamp the U.S. housing finance system.

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