By Margaret Chadbourn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday ramped up efforts to win confirmation for President Barack Obama's pick to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Senate scheduled a vote to try to break through Republican opposition.
Obama nominated Representative Mel Watt to replace Edward DeMarco as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency on May 1, but the nomination has stalled due to stiff Republican opposition.
On Monday, White House officials met with housing and financial industry representatives to enlist their support in an effort to move Watt's nomination through the Senate.
"The administration officials made clear that the Watt confirmation is a top White House priority, that the Senate should move forward to confirm him this week," said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.
"The president and his senior team will continue to push hard for Watt until he is confirmed and in place," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put a vote on the Senate's agenda that could clear procedural hurdles to Watt's confirmation, but the timing of any vote - and the prospect of its success - remained unclear.
Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, can expect strong backing from Democrats, who will control 55 votes once Senator-elect Cory Booker of New Jersey takes office on Thursday. But he would need to gain 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to overcome Republican hurdles and move to a final up-or-down vote.
Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is the sole Republican to have endorsed Watt publicly. Many Republicans contend that he lacks the technical expertise on housing finance to oversee the nation's two largest mortgage finance firms.
The goal of the White House meeting with six housing and financial services groups was to bring them on board to pressure Senate Republicans into allowing the chamber to move directly to a final vote.
Participants included the heads of the National Multi Housing Council, the National Association of Home Builders, the American Bankers Association, Mortgage Bankers Association and the National Association of Realtors, as well as a top official from the Financial Services Roundtable.
A number of senior administration officials took part, including National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.
"They wanted to make clear to the group that they are sticking with Mel and they are not backing off their pick for FHFA," MBA chief David Stevens said following the meeting.
The Senate Banking Committee backed Watt's nomination on a party-line vote in July, but Democrats have not been able to drum up enough Republican support to bring it to the floor for a vote.
At the meeting, senior administration officials also reiterated the White House's hopes for reform of the housing finance system. They endorsed bipartisan work under way in the Senate to draft legislation to overhaul the current system and reduce taxpayer support of the mortgage market.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Tim Dobbyn and Ken Wills)