Not even Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. could convince an in-cycle Senate Democrat from his home state to switch his vote and support embattled Department of Justice nominee Debo P. Adegbile.
In the view of Democratic optimists, Biden had made a rare and impromptu appearance at the Capitol on Wednesday to cast a potential tie-breaking vote for Adegbile. But in reality, Biden served as the last-ditch salesman from the administration, futilely chatting up members such as Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., inside the Senate chamber. Coons was one of seven Democrats to join Republicans to block Adegbile from being the next assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.
The scene on the floor underscored a new political reality for Senate Democrats. In a "post-nuclear option" world where up-and-down votes now reign, Democrats often will carry the full burden of filling administration posts — and the Republicans will not be afraid to make political gold from tenuous straw to do it.
“This is an embarrassment for President Obama and the Democrats who thought it was a good idea to nominate a convicted cop-killer’s most ardent defender to head a DOJ Department and failed. Vulnerable Democrats running in 2014 just voted to confirm a radical nominee whose positions on civil rights, religious liberty, voting rights and the second amendment are far outside the mainstream," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement after the vote.
Of the Democrats who opposed the Adegbile nomination, three — Coons, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana — are on the ballot this fall. The others either had regional ties to the controversy dogging Adegbile or are from red states. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa. voted against cloture, as did Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
The overarching reason for the Democratic defections appeared to be fear of political retribution in the form of attack ads that could have come their way, pegged to the narrative that Adegbile advocated on behalf of an "extremist cop killer." Those exact words were used by McConnell as he opened the floor earlier in the day, stating his opposition to the nominee and capping a backlash that was largely pushed by Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey.
Adegbile’s nomination was the most controversial to hit the Senate floor since Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., led his party to change the chamber’s filibuster rules, requiring only a simple majority for many administration nominees. Wednesday’s vote demonstrated the political risk in such a maneuver more clearly than any other roll call tally.
Adegbile was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2011, when the group provided legal representation to Mumia Abu-Jamal. His death sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982 was reduced to life without parole.
Democrats were put in a political box, stuck between potential negative ads and supporting a nominee many believed was qualified for the post. Coons said in a statement the vote was “one of the most difficult” he has cast.
Democrats fled the vote Wednesday, trying to evade reporters asking why they voted “yes” or “no.” Later, after their weekly lunch, many of the politically vulnerable senators, regardless of how they voted, snuck out back doors and corridors to avoid waiting reporters.
“I think he’s well-qualified,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said of Adegbile as she rushed into an elevator. The New Hampshire Democrat is up for re-election this cycle.
The New Hampshire Republican Party immediately released a statement attacking Shaheen for her vote, using it to tie her voting record to the president's agenda. Former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown, who is mulling a run in the Granite State, tweeted after the vote: "Dems’ support 4 Debo Adegbile sends wrong message 2 law enforcement everywhere, those Sens voting 4 confirmation have some explaining to do."
Though such a vote is unlikely to be the deciding factor in any major Senate race, the internal politics revealed by Wednesday's vote are even more significant. McConnell, in speaking with reporters later in the day, used the vote to attack Democrats generally and to call for a return to the old filibuster system.
"I know there was a temptation here, obviously, on part to send this nominee up. But he was too difficult for even seven Democrats to swallow," said McConnell, whose top political operatives touted his vote. "We need to get the Senate back to normal. As you know, most of the nominees we're voting on these days would have been confirmed last December, probably on a voice vote, many of them, but for the decision of the majority to run roughshod over the minority. So you could argue they have not gained a whole lot by establishing this unfortunate precedent."
McConnell's position represents the majority, if not the entirety, of his caucus. But Democrats still see it differently.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said that he has no regrets about Democrats easing the nominations process last November.
"The fact that we get to a vote is significant," Durbin said. "What would have happened to this man under the old days? He would have sat on the calendar for two years and nothing would have happened to him. Well, I don't like the outcome at all, but there was a vote."
The No. 2 Senate Democrat argued that Republicans had shifted the level of scrutiny for nominees who have legal backgrounds and have tried the sorts of cases held against Adegbile.
"He was eminently well-qualified and the argument made by Republicans against him was shockingly, embarrassingly inconsistent with the position they have taken with nominees like John Roberts," Durbin said, before conceding there also was a threat of retaliation from law enforcement advocacy groups, who opposed Adegbile's nomination. "Yes it was," Durbin said, when asked if that opposition played a significant factor in "no" votes.
Reid reserved the right to reconsider the Adegbile nomination at a later date, though given the mess Wednesday, it's unlikely such a day will come. A replay of the vote any closer to the election likely would make the intraparty divisions for Democrats worse. And Republicans would relish the opportunity.