WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The Federal Housing Finance Authority has a new director.

Late Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted 57-41 to confirm U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the FHFA, the agency that manages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac following the 2008 financial crisis.

Republicans voted en masse against Watt's confirmation, except for Sens. Richard Burr, who is from Watt's home state, and Rob Portman of Ohio. Also, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mark Kirk of Illinois did not vote, according to the roll call.

"Seven months ago, I nominated Mel to lead the agency charged with looking out for hardworking families by enforcing rules of the road for the mortgage industry. And today, he's finally been confirmed to do that job," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"Mel comes from humble roots. He's represented the people of North Carolina in Congress for 20 years. He's the right person to protect Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day, and he'll be the right regulator to make sure the kind of crisis we just went through never happens again."

Senate Republicans blocked Watt's nomination in October. Then, last month, the Senate changed its rules in response to the GOP's obstruction.

Under the rules change, a simple majority of senators, or 51 votes, ends debate on executive branch nominees and nominees to federal district and appeals courts.

Before the change, a 60-vote majority was needed for the approval of presidential nominees.

Watt has served as a Congressman since 1993 and has served for all of his 20 years as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees housing policy.

Special interest groups celebrated his confirmation Tuesday.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Watt's confirmation is "welcome news" to homeowners who need a "responsible and vigilant housing regulator."

"Congressman Watt is an advocate for struggling homeowners. With 40 years of experience in the housing sector, he has the depth of knowledge to grasp the problems that plague Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the skills to work with all stakeholders to right the housing market," Henderson said in a statement.

The National Bar Association also applauded Watt's confirmation.

"Housing is one of the most vital aspects of our economy and we are confident in the experience Congressman Watt will bring to the FHFA," President Patricia Rosier said in a statement.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris also has been a vocal supporter of Watt.

She is one of nine state attorneys general who argued in a March letter to the President that the FHFA's now former director, Edward DeMarco, needed to be replaced.

The other attorneys general included Delaware's Beau Biden, Illinois' Lisa Madigan, Maryland's Doug Gansler, Massachusetts' Martha Coakley, Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto, New York's Eric Schneiderman, Oregon's Ellen Rosenblum and Washington's Bob Ferguson.

The attorneys general argued that under DeMarco's leadership, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been a "direct impediment to our economic recovery" by the continued refusal to give principal relief for struggling homeowners.

"Today's vote is a true victory for working families in New York and across the nation. I applaud the Senate for finally putting in place a permanent head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency who can advocate on behalf of homeowners desperately in need of mortgage relief," Schneiderman said in a statement Tuesday.

"This confirmation marks a turning point for the FHFA and an opportunity to further our economic recovery by directly combating the foreclosure crisis."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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