The rebuff came on Wednesday on an excuse of a backlash over the nominee’s so called connection to a high-profile convicted cop-killer.
Seven members of Obama’s Democratic Party joined all Republicans in opposition to help torpedo the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Adegbile is a leading civil rights attorney and was part of the team which helped get Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence commuted to life in prison in 2012.
Obama swiftly condemned Adegbile’s rejection as “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”
“The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice,” the president said in a statement.
The Senate controversially changed the chamber’s rules last year, lowering the threshold to advance most presidential nominations to just a majority 50 votes, rather than the 60 previously needed to overcome a so-called filibuster.
But even under the new rules, the nomination failed in the Democratically controlled chamber.
Vice President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, was on hand in the event he was needed to break a tie, but the vote fell short, 47-52.
Adegbile, who had been legal counsel to the African-American civil rights group NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, has argued civil rights cases on voting rights before the US Supreme Court.
But some lawmakers said they could not get beyond the fact that he was linked to a man convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
“There is no question that Mr. Adegbile… would be an asset to the Justice Department,” Senate Democrat Chris Coons said in a statement.
“But at a time when the Civil Rights Division urgently needs better relations with the law enforcement community, I was troubled by the idea of voting for an assistant attorney general for civil rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job.”
Abu-Jamal was for a time a member of the black revolutionary group called the Black Panthers, which had a controversial and sometimes violent history.
Conservative Republican Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor Tuesday to denounce the Adegbile nomination as “insulting to law enforcement officers everywhere.”
“I stand with the Fraternal Order of Police in opposition to Debo Adegbile,” Cruz added.
Faulkner’s widow lobbied senators to oppose Adegbile, writing in a petition that “old wounds have once again been ripped open” by the nomination.
Seven Democratic senators defected, the majority of whom represent Republican-leaning states and were clearly concerned about casting a vote supportive of someone with ties to Abu-Jamal.
Even more politically problematic than the Democratic defections is the fact that a number of vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection in November voted for Adegbile — and have nothing to show for it. They include Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Alaska’s Mark Begich, who went out on a limb for their side only to see it sawed off behind them. “It’s a 30-second ad that writes itself,” lamented one Democratic aide about the vote.
Debo Adegbile, who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 2001 to 2013, was nominated by the Obama Administration to serve in the Department of Justice and led the Civil Rights Division. He is currently a senior counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee