The vote against advancing Debo Adegbile toward confirmation was 47-52, short of the majority needed under new procedures Democrats put in place earlier this year to overcome Republican stalling tactics. In this case, all 44 voting Republicans and eight Democrats lined up to block confirmation, leaving the nomination is grave jeopardy.
Obama swiftly condemned the vote. In a statement, he called it a "travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
Administration officials declined to say if they would seek a second vote in the hopes they could change the minds of a few Democrats, although Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is positioned to call for one.
The vote was a victory for Republicans and the National Fraternal Order of Police, who said Adegbile's connection with the legal case of Mumia Abu-Jamal disqualified him from holding high public office.
Shortly before the vote, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., read from a letter written by Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the policeman Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. "Today, as my husband lies 33 years in his grave, his killer has become a wealthy celebrity," she wrote.
"Old wounds have once again been ripped open, and additional insult is brought upon our law enforcement community in this country by President Obama's nomination of Debo Adegbile."
Supporters of the nomination included the nation's civil rights groups and their allies in the Senate. Several sought to turn the focus to other cases in which unsavory or controversial defendants had top-shelf legal representation.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted that a Founding Father, John Adams, "made the very unpopular decision to represent a British solider on the eve of the Revolutionary War." He added that when Chief Justice John Roberts was confirmed to a lower court position in 2003, "not one senator raised a concern about (him) providing pro-bono representation to a man who had been convicted of killing eight people and was awaiting execution on Florida's death row."
Supporters also noted that Adegbile was working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time it intervened in the case - years after Abu-Jamal had been convicted, but that he had not made the decision to join the effort on his behalf.