WASHINGTON—In a surprising defeat for President Obama, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Wednesday blocked his controversial nominee to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
In a statement, President Obama called the 47-52 vote “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”
Supporters of Debo Adegbile, the son of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother, say his nomination had been fraught with race issues from the start. Opposition focused on his past legal representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted cop killer in Philadelphia who became a cause celebre in leftist circles.
Adegbile’s involvement in the case brought condemnation from police unions and from the widow of the slain policeman.
Even so, until recently his nomination had been expected to pass, albeit narrowly. But on Wednesday, a procedural vote on the nomination was seen as so close that Vice President Joe Biden rushed to the Senate floor in case his vote was needed to break a tie.
In the end, seven Democrats voted against advancing the nomination. It marked the first time an Obama nominee was blocked since the Senate changed its rules last year to prevent filibusters for most presidential nominations.
Civil rights advocates who backed Adegbile expressed outrage, suggesting that race may have played a factor.
“You hate to raise that up, but it smells very bad,” said Hilary Shelton of the NAACP.
Sen. 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. At the last minute, Reid changed his vote to no, a procedural move that could allow him to call another vote in the future.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, (R-S.C.), who voted against Adegbile, said the vote was about Adegbile’s behavior, not his race. “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens,” Graham said in an interview.