The Senate rejected President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division on Wednesday in a stunning 47-52 vote in which seven Democrats abandoned their leadership.
The vote was all the more remarkable for the five Democrats in tough reelection races this year who voted in vain to move Debo Adegbile’s nomination forward.
police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
The vote was a stinging defeat for the White House that showed President Obama is politically out of step with some centrist Democrats heading into the midterm elections.
Obama labeled the vote a “travesty” based on “wildly unfair” character attacks.
“Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked,” Obama said. “As a lawyer, Mr. Adegbile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him.”
Adegbile was the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when it worked to commute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. Faulkner’s widow, the Fraternal Order of Police and Republicans argued this should disqualify him from the Justice job, while supporters warned a rejection would set the ominous precedent of holding a lawyer accountable for a client’s behavior.
Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), John Walsh (Mont.), Chris Coons (Del.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) voted to block Adegbile, while several Democrats in tough reelection races, including Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Begich (Alaska), voted to advance him.
Every Republican voted against the nomination, forcing Reid to secure the support of at least 50 members of his 55-person caucus. Vice President Biden presided over the vote and would have been available to break a tie, but his vote was not needed.
It was the first time a nomination has gone down since Democrats changed the Senate’s filibuster rules to require simple majority votes on many procedural motions.
The Republican National Committee immediately pounced, highlighting the votes by Hagan, Landrieu and Begich.
“Vulnerable Democrats running in 2014 just voted to confirm a radical nominee whose positions on civil rights, religious liberty, voting rights and the second amendment are far outside the mainstream,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted the vote was not a sign that Obama is losing support among Senate Democrats.
“The vast majority of Democrats voted to confirm him so I don’t think it says anything about the president,” said Reid, who switched his vote from “yes” to “no” in a procedural move that allows him to bring the nomination up again for a future vote.
Reid argued that Adegbile was being smeared by charges of guilt by association. The Democratic leader noted that as a young lawyer, he himself represented unsavory characters pro bono.
Democratic leaders immediately faced questions about whether it was wise to schedule a vote without knowing for certain the nominee could attract enough support.
“These 2014 Democrats can’t be happy with their leadership over the Adegbile vote. They all walked the plank while others got to vote ‘no,’ ” said a Senate GOP leadership aide.
A senior Democratic leadership aide said the White House and Adegbile were informed that he might fall short of the 50 votes needed to advance his nomination but both wanted to roll the dice and proceed.
The aide said Reid had little choice about whether to schedule the vote or not, arguing that floor action was inevitable once Obama made the pick because the assistant attorney general in charge of Justice’s civil rights division is such a high-profile position.
“There’s no scenario in which we would not come up for a vote,” said the aide. “That decision was made when he was nominated.
“We don’t avoid tough votes,” the aide added.
Abu-Jamal has long been a cause célèbre in leftist political circles who argue his case exposed racism in the criminal justice system — he even has a street named after him in Paris. But Republicans say he was an unrepentant cop killer and noted there was overwhelming evidence he shot and killed Faulkner at point-blank range.
GOP senators claimed Adegbile’s record of “left-wing advocacy” would further politicize the Justice Department.
The choice of Adegbile split civil rights and law enforcement groups and put Democrats in an awkward position of having to pick a side.
“It was a tough one because you had the NAACP on one side and police officers on the other so people voted the best they could given the circumstances,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who voted for Adegbile.
The votes by Casey and Coons were notable but not entirely surprising given the attention Abu-Jamal’s conviction received in that are of the country.
Casey said the officer’s “vicious murder” more than 30 years ago has “left open wounds” for Philadelphia.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Adegbile’s nomination was a “thumb in the eye of our law enforcement officers.”
“The nominee inserted his office in an effort to turn reality on its head, impugn honorable and selfless law enforcement officers, and glorify an unrepentant cop killer,” McConnell said in a statement. “This is not required by our legal system. On the contrary, it is noxious to it.”
— This story was posted at 12:27 p.m. and updated at 8:17 p.m.