WASHINGTON — In a surprising defeat for President Obama, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Wednesday blocked his pick to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, the first time in his presidency that one of his nominees failed to muster even a simple majority.
Until shortly before the roll call, Democrats appeared to believe they were close to having the votes needed to narrowly approve civil rights attorney Debo Adegbile, as they summoned Vice President Joe Biden to the Senate floor in case he was needed to cast a tie-breaking vote.
But in an embarrassing miscalculation by Democratic leaders, seven from their own party voted no, dooming the nomination.
Opposition focused on Adegbile's role at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he served as one of the appellate lawyers in the high-profile murder case against Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life term for killing a Philadelphia police officer 32 years ago.
Abu-Jamal's case has been a cause celebre in some leftist circles, where he is viewed as a victim of racial bias. But it has also become a lightning rod for conservatives and law enforcement groups, who had advocated for Abu-Jamal's execution.
Adegbile's supporters said the debate over the nomination was fraught with racial issues, insisting he was a highly qualified lawyer who had overcome a childhood of poverty and occasional homelessness. Those who voted no said that race was not a factor and that Adegbile's supporters underestimated the passions stirred by the murder case.
In a statement, President Obama called the 52-47 defeat "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
The president, Senate Democrats and civil rights leaders all decried the fact that a lawyer was defeated based on whom he had represented in court. Adegbile was a longtime advocate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund before joining the Senate Judiciary Committee staff last year.
Adegbile becomes the first Obama nominee to be rejected since Senate Democrats changed long-standing filibuster rules in November to ensure that qualified nominees would not fall victim to partisan politics. That change lowered the threshold for confirmation from a filibuster-proof 60 votes to a simple majority of 50, presumably an easy mark in a body where Democrats can usually count on 55 votes.
Supporters of Adegbile — the son of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother — called the vote "outrageous," suggesting race may have been a factor. "You hate to raise that up, but it smells very bad," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Republicans just before the vote that if Adegbile lost there would have to be a "broad discussion" of civil rights in America.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he voted no because of Adegbile's representation of Abu-Jamal, a black militant radio journalist who was originally sentenced to death in the murder of a white Philadelphia policeman, Daniel Faulkner. "When someone has a history of helping cop killers, this is what happens," Graham said in an interview.
"President Obama's nomination of Mr. Adegbile to this position was a slap in the face to law enforcement personnel across the country, and in particular the family of Danny Faulkner," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "In the end, it's difficult to see how he could separate the type of blind advocacy he made for Abu-Jamal from the important work to be done at the civil rights division."
Adegbile was just 15 years old when Abu-Jamal rushed across a dark Philadelphia street to come to the aid of his brother, whose car had been stopped by Faulkner. Faulkner was killed and Abu-Jamal was wounded in an exchange of gunfire.
The evidence against Abu-Jamal was overwhelming. Three eyewitnesses to the shooting testified against him, and two more said he bragged of the killing when taken to a hospital afterward. Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death, though the death sentence was overturned on appeal because of problems with the jury instructions.
Adegbile and other lawyers from the Legal Defense Fund got involved in his appeal just five years ago, when they filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court alleging racial discrimination in jury selection, and represented him directly when prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death sentence.
Some said Adegbile's involvement in the case had been highly exaggerated by Republicans, and pointed to a caricature of him in the conservative Washington Times that heavily accentuated his racial features and had him holding up a sign saying "Cop Killer," as if in a scene from "Sesame Street" — which Adegbile was a child actor on for nine years.
At the last minute, Reid changed his vote to no, a procedural move that could allow him to call another vote in the future if he can persuade at least two senators to change their votes. That would allow Biden to break a tie.
Democrats who voted no were Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana.