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Obama nominates Watt to head housing agency, Wheeler to FCC

President Obama announces his nominee for the Federal Housing Finance Authority, North Carolina Democrat Representative Mel Watt (L), and his nominee for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), venture capitalist Tom Wheeler (R), in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2013.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama on Wednesday nominated a longtime congressman to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a former lobbyist to lead the Federal Communications Commission, bringing two experienced insiders to help foster growth and protect consumers in two major economic sectors.

Mr. Obama nominated Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a 20-year congressman and senior member on the House Financial Services Committee, to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency -- the agency in charge of overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To serve as chairman of the FCC, Mr. Obama nominated Tom Wheeler -- an Obama fundraiser and venture capitalist who formerly worked as a lobbyist for cable and wireless companies.

Mr. Obama praised Watt for his experience overseeing the housing sector.

"Our housing market is finally beginning to heal," Mr. Obama said from the White House State Dining Room. However, he continued, "I think everybody understands we've got more help to do...Mel understands as well as anybody what caused the housing crisis. He knows what it's gonna take to help responsible home owners fully recover, and he's committed to helping folks ... who work really hard, play by the rules day-in, day-out, to provide for their families."

Some public officials and grassroots groups hailed Watt's nomination and urged the president to quickly dismiss acting director Edward DeMarco as quickly as possible.

Consumer advocates see Watt's nomination as a chance to improve housing policy and are urging Watt to support principal reduction on so-called underwater mortgages -- a policy DeMarco wouldn't support.

"This nomination is a good first step, but struggling homeowners cannot afford to wait for the Senate to complete the confirmation process," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a press release. "The president should use his legal authority to replace Edward DeMarco with a new acting director who will start the effort to put FHFA on the side of working families immediately."

Tracy Van Slyke, executive director of a grassroots coalition called The New Bottom Line, called the nomination "a step in the right direction" and also urged Watt to support principal reduction.

However, Senate Republicans, wary of government intervention in the housing industry, are likely to try and hold up his nomination.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he "could not be more disappointed in this nomination."

"This gives new meaning to the adage that the fox is guarding the hen house," Corker said. "The debate around his nomination will illuminate for all Americans why Fannie and Freddie failed so miserably."

Mr. Obama acknowledged the tough fight ahead by joking, "I'm going to go ahead and thank the Senate now for what I'm sure what will be a speedy confirmation process."

Wheeler's nomination to serve as FCC chairman, meanwhile, has caused some grumbling among those concerned about his lobbyist background.

Mr. Obama, however, praised his industry experience. "For more than 30 years Tom's been at the forefront of the dramatic changes" in the telecom industry, he said. Noting that Wheeler is the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry halls of fame, he called him "the Bo Jackson of telecom," referring to the athlete who excelled in both baseball and football in the 1980s.

Dozens of Senate Democrats earlier this year urged Mr. Obama FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to serve as chairwoman -- suggesting, the Wall Street Journal reported, that those senators weren't thrilled with Wheeler or other prospective leaders.

Wednesday, however, lawmakers commended Mr. Obama's choice.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., top Democrat on the communications and technology subcommittee, said in a statement that Wheeler is a "smart choice."

"His more than three decades of industry experience and expert policy know-how will be invaluable as we work to advance a 21st century telecommunications landscape guided by the core principles of competition, consumer protection and diversity," she said.