Justice Department nominee was thwarted by critics of his role in overturning the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

What Does the Senate Slapdown Mean for Obama?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

The Senate today voted down President Barack Obama's nominee for the Department of Justice civil rights division. At issue was Debo P. Adegbile's ties to the defense team that overturned the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black Panther who was convicted for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. Opposition to Adegbile from the police lobby was enough to persuade six Democrats to desert the president.

Technically, the vote was on cloture, but with 51 votes against (Majority Leader Harry Reid then flipped to "no" for procedural reasons to make it 52), it's more accurate to say that the Senate opposed the nomination, rather than calling it a defeat by filibuster.

The result appeared to be something of a surprise. It's fair to call it a mistake by the administration, which didn't realize the power of the Abu-Jamal issue for several swing-state senators. Flat-out defeats of executive-branch nominees are rare and, until now, Democratic defections on nomination votes had been practically non-existent during the Obama presidency. Something went seriously wrong here.

That said: I'm sticking with my view that presidents should be doing less vetting of executive branch nominees, not more. The big consequence of this setback will be that Obama has to find someone else to head the civil rights division. As a story, it won't go far at all. It's not going to affect Obama's approval rating or his reputation. Finding a replacement will be more difficult than it should be, however, because of the insane vetting requirements.

Adegbile was nominated Nov. 18 to replace Thomas Perez, who had been nominated as secretary of labor March 18 and was confirmed on July 18. That's far too long!

Today's vote also demonstrates again that the minority party is better off with a simple-majority threshold for confirmation rather than a 60-vote requirement. Remember, no one really cared about defeating Adegbile. This was all symbolic politics. If the 60-vote rule were still in place, Republicans would announce a filibuster, and Democrats would probably just kill the nomination. The simple majority means that by pushing ahead, Harry Reid set up a tough vote for many Democratic senators -- that's a win for Republicans, whatever the final vote tally.

The only way that minority parties really gain from a 60-vote requirement is if they're trying to prevent anyone from filling a particular post. As we saw, that is something the majority ultimately won't tolerate. Lowering the threshold to a simple majority makes nominees much more difficult to defeat, but it also forces more tough votes for majority-party senators.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net