Democrats Block Obama Pick for Civil Rights Post

Washington — The Senate on Wednesday dealt a setback to President Obama when several politically vulnerable Democrats defected to help Republicans defeat the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be chief of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Adegbile’s nomination had revived the racially charged legacy of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer more than three decades ago — a case in which, long after the trial, Adegbile played a small role — and the vote exposed the anxiety facing many red state Democratic senators as the 2014 midterm elections approach.

Seven Democrats joined with Republicans in blocking a final vote on the nomination. Adegbile’s ties to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an internationally known prisoner convicted of the 1981 murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner, had become the focus of a conservative crusade that boiled over in recent weeks.

A senior aide to one of the senators who voted against the nominee said several senators’ offices were “very angry” at the White House for moving ahead with the nomination even though it could leave Democrats facing tough re-election races vulnerable to attack ads.

“It’s a vote you didn’t have to take. It’s a 30-second ad that writes itself,” said the aide, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly.

The vote was expected to be close, and Vice President Joe Biden was on hand to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed. But only 47 senators voted to proceed to final consideration of Adegbile, making him the first Obama nominee rejected since Democrats changed Senate procedure last year to require a simple majority of senators present to advance a nominee to a final vote. Even though they knew they had no GOP support, Democrats brought the nomination to a vote because they were betting that enough of their own would stick with the president.

“We were very close to getting this good man nominated,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after the vote. Adegbile’s fate was sealed, he said, “when a number of people saw the vote not going in a certain way.”

Reid had spoken in defense of Adegbile and initially voted to proceed, but he later switched his vote to “no,” giving him the right as Senate leader to bring up the nomination again. But later Wednesday, aides couldn’t say whether that will happen.

Adegbile, 47, spent more than a decade working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he served as the group’s in-house voting rights expert. His defenders note that the Legal Defense Fund began its work on Abu-Jamal’s behalf before Adegbile’s tenure began but acknowledge that he contributed to the filing of a 2009 court brief that argued that Abu-Jamal faced a discriminatory jury - an appeal found to have merit by a judge.

It was that involvement that inspired Adegbile’s opponents, including Faulkner’s widow, to argue that he should be disqualified from holding any publicly appointed position in the justice system.

“Today is a good day for Pennsylvania, for America, and for those who believe in justice,” said Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., who led the opposition to Adegbile’s nomination and read a letter from Faulkner’s widow on the Senate floor. “The Senate affirmed that our criminal justice system must never be abused to propagate a dishonest, radical agenda. The American people, especially law enforcement and Maureen Faulkner, deserve better.”

The decision by seven Democrats to buck their party leadership and the White House caused a rare split in the Senate Democratic Caucus, which has been unified in supporting Obama’s nominees.

In a statement, Obama said the vote had “denied the American people an outstanding public servant.”

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. , who has said he plans to make tackling civil rights issues his major focus during the remainder of Obama’s term, aid he was disappointed by the vote.

“It is a very dangerous precedent to set for the legal profession when individual lawyers can have their otherwise sterling qualifications denigrated based solely on the clients that their organizations represent,” Holder said in a statement.

The Senate Democrats who opposed the nominee were: Christopher Coons of Delaware, Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and John Walsh of Montana.

Pryor faces one of the most difficult re-election battles of any Democrat this year, while Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin and Walsh hail from socially conservative states that Obama lost in 2012.

“I made a conscientious decision after talking to the wife of the victim,” Manchin told reporters after the vote.

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Coons voted to refer Adegbile to the full Senate. But in a statement Wednesday, he said he voted in opposition out of concern that Adegbile “would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job.” But Coons also represents a state near Philadelphia where the notoriety of the Abu-Jamal case is well known.

For several of the Democrats who supported Adegbile and face difficult re-election campaigns, the vote was potentially damaging.

Within hours, state Republican parties began unloading. The New Hampshire GOP targeted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in a statement titled “Shaheen votes for radical Obama nominee who defended unrepentant cop killer.” The North Carolina Republican Party issued a statement saying, “Kay Hagan Votes For Extremist DOJ Nominee Who Helped Get A Convicted Cop Killer Off The Hook.”

The vote appeared to be a miscalculation by the White House and Senate Democrats, who have worked together for years to deflect GOP opposition to Obama’s picks and usually vote in lock step to confirm his nominees. Democratic leaders also have avoided holding controversial votes this year, focusing instead on modest proposals designed to bolster the chances of Pryor, Hagan, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and others who are expected to face millions of dollars in attack ads by Republicans and outside conservative groups.

Voting in favor of Adegbile is unlikely to cause much trouble for Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who enjoys a 60 percent job approval rating and has been a staunch opponent of Republicans who block Obama’s nominees. But the vote probably will not help Hagan and Landrieu, who have the dual challenges this year of rallying large African American voting blocs and finding ways to appeal to centrist white swing voters.