Senate Democrats killed the filibuster for nominations because they wanted to be able to confirm the president's choices for top administration positions even if Republicans were united in opposition. From now on, Democrats ruled, nominations would be confirmed by a simple majority vote. With 55 Democrats in the Senate, and as few as 51 required for confirmation, the change virtually guaranteed success for the president's nominees.
But even a rule change was not enough to save the nomination of Debo Adegbile, the former NAACP Legal Defense Fund official who was the president's choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats -- Bob Casey, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Chris Coons, Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor, and John Walsh -- abandoned Abegdile Wednesday in a vote to move forward with the nomination. (Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to 'no' at the end, but that was just a procedural maneuver to allow for possible future reconsideration of the matter.) The final vote on Adegbile, including Reid's switch, was 52-47.
Opposition to Adegbile focused on his advocacy on behalf of Philadelphia cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Under Adegbile, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund made arguments in the case — long after Abu-Jamal's conviction had been appealed and his death sentence reduced to life in prison — that struck critics more as political advocacy than legal representation.
Republicans hit Adegbile hard over the Abu-Jamal matter, and before the vote Wednesday, some leading Democrats tried to mount a defense. Reid argued that Adegbile "did not step into a courtroom, he did not write one word of any single brief" on Abu-Jamal's behalf. And Adegbile only signed the Abu-Jamal brief "third down the row," Reid said.
Reid argued that GOP opposition to Adegbile was not so much about Abu-Jamal as it was about voting rights. Enforcing voting laws would have been a major part of Adegbile's duties as head of the Civil Rights Division, and Reid called him a "faithful defender of voting rights." The problem, Reid charged is that "Republicans don't want people to vote … and they especially don't want poor people to vote."
The Senate's number-two Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin argued that Adegbile's advocacy for Abu-Jamal "does not mean that he lacks respect for the rule of law" but rather "demonstrates his appreciation for the rule of law." And Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained that, "You listen to [Republicans], or you listen to Fox News, and you might think the nominee himself is a criminal."
To no avail. As the vote neared, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the Senate chamber to break a possible tie -- a clear indication that the White House knew the nomination was in trouble. But there was no tie. Seven Democrats voted "no," joined by 44 Republicans -- the GOP's John Cornyn was the only senator not to vote -- capped off, finally, by Reid's procedural switch.
The vote was a clear defeat for President Obama, who himself practiced civil rights law before taking up politics. The path forward for the Civil Rights Division position is not clear. But in the case of Debo Adegbile, even changing the Senate's rules was not enough for the president to prevail.