Senators blocked President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division Wednesday in a bipartisan filibuster, with opponents saying his history defending a convicted cop-killer in the Supreme Court made him a poor choice.
The defeat of Debo P. Adegbile, who as an attorney for the NAACP backed appeals by former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, is a major blow to Mr. Obama. Democrats changed the rules last year to overcome filibusters with just 50 votes, but Majority Leader Harry Reid couldn’t even muster all of his own troops Wednesday.
Mr. Obama called the vote “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks,” and Mr. Reid lashed out at Republicans in thinly veiled accusations of racism.
“Maybe it’s time that America had a good discussion on civil rights,” the Nevada Democrat said.
He blamed Republicans for problems with confirmations of other black nominees.
On Wednesday, however, seven Democrats joined Republicans, agreeing with criticism from police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, that Mr. Adegbile’s support for Abu-Jamal was too much to stomach.
Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. In the years since, his case has become a racial dividing line.
In 2006, Mr. Adegbile was part of an NAACP legal team that filed a Supreme Court brief in the Abu-Jamal case, and later was the group’s acting president when it began representing the convict. The NAACP argued that the trial was tainted and that the judge’s instructions to the jury were unclear.
The case remains a hot issue in Pennsylvania more than 30 years after the killing, and that helped rally opposition against Mr. Adegbile.
“Today is a good day for Pennsylvania, for America, and for those who believe in justice,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican. His fellow Pennsylvanian, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat, also voted to filibuster Mr. Adegbile.
“Today the Senate affirmed that our criminal justice system must never be abused to propagate a dishonest, radical agenda,” Mr. Toomey said.
Mr. Adegbile’s defenders said he was just providing Abu-Jamal with a good defense, and to deny him the civil rights post because of that would be a subversion of the justice system. They said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. defended a convicted killer in Florida during his time as a lawyer, yet that was never raised during his confirmation hearings to the federal courts.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said the key difference is that Chief Justice Roberts is white and Mr. Adegbile is black.
“It’s a shameful day for the United States Senate,” he said.
Mr. Reid listed a series of black nominees he said Republicans opposed unfairly, including Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Todd Jones, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Of those, Mr. Johnson was easily confirmed to his post. Mr. Jones managed to overcome a filibuster under the old rules, but Mr. Watt was pushed through the chamber after Mr. Reid changed the filibuster rules.
Mr. Adegbile is the first of Mr. Obama’s nominees to be blocked since Mr. Reid forced the filibuster rules change in November. Before that, it took 60 votes to overcome a filibuster — a threshold that Democrats couldn’t reach if all Republicans stuck together.
But after the rules change, almost all nominees now need just a majority vote to overcome a filibuster.
Under the new rules, Democrats have forced through more than 40 nominees, including several who would have been blocked under the old rules.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the vote shows just how outside the mainstream the Adegbile pick was, given that Democrats couldn’t even muster their own members. He said if the 60-vote rules were in place, Mr. Obama wouldn’t have even tried to nominate Mr. Adegbile.
“I know there was a temptation here obviously on his part to send this nominee up, but he was too difficult for even seven Democrats to swallow,” Mr. McConnell said. “We need to get the Senate back to normal.”
Mr. Reid imposed the rules change as punishment against Republicans who, he said, had taken filibustering of Mr. Obama’s nominees to new levels. Now, Mr. Reid can overcome those filibusters by keeping his own troops in line.
In retaliation, Republicans have forced Mr. Reid to run the full procedural traps on many nominees who would have cleared without trouble before the rules change.
Indeed, before the rules change, 78 percent of all nominees confirmed were approved by voice vote. But in the 3½ months since the rules change, just 29 percent have been confirmed on voice vote.
“You could argue they have not gained a whole lot by establishing this unfortunate precedent,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. Reid, though, said Republicans’ opposition was based on worries that Mr. Adegbile would be too effective at the Justice Department. He accused Republicans of trying to prevent some people from voting and said Mr. Adegbile would have stopped those efforts as head of the civil rights division.
Mr. McConnell said Mr. Adegbile had a long history of “left-wing advocacy” that would politicize the civil rights division. He said the nominee argued that it was “radical” to think the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual’s right to bear arms and opposed voter identification requirements.
The Supreme Court has rejected both of those stances.
The seven Democrats who voted to filibuster Mr. Adegbile were Mr. Casey and Sens. Christopher A. Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas and John E. Walsh of Montana.
Some Democrats who backed Mr. Adegbile are already facing political attacks from Republican challengers.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, quickly issued a statement the title of which accused the senator of sending “a Message of Contempt to America’s Law Enforcement.”
“We know Senator Landrieu votes with President Obama 97 percent of the time. We didn’t know that even applies when it means voting for a nominee who supported a convicted and unrepentant cop-killer,” he said.
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