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The Senate delivered a stinging blow to President Obama today, rejecting his pick to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined Republicans in voting against confirmation. The tally was 47 in favor, 52 against. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the vote pitted law enforcement supporters against the civil rights community.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In a campaign that gained steam over the past few weeks, the Fraternal Order of Police worked to define civil rights lawyer Debo Adegbile through one episode in his long career.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey set the stage.

SEN. PAT TOOMEY: It was 3:55 a.m. on December 9, 1981, when 25-year-old Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner was brutally murdered in the line of duty.

JOHNSON: The killer was Mumia Abu Jamal, an African-American activist who was sentenced to death, until a group of lawyers got his sentence reduced by uncovering faults in the trial. Attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Adegbile worked for years, handled some appeals on the case. That drew the ire of Officer Faulkner's widow who sent a letter to lawmakers, read by Sen. Toomey, before today's vote.

TOOMEY: (Reading) The thought that Mr. Adegbile would be rewarded in part for the work he did for my husband's killer is revolting.

JOHNSON: Republicans had other objections to Adegbile, mostly centered on the expectation he'd aggressively enforce voting rights laws.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: He has a long record of left wing advocacy marked by ideologically-driven positions and very, very poor judgment.

JOHNSON: Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

MCCONNELL: The decision to champion the cause of an extremist cop killer sends a message of contempt to police officers.

JOHNSON: And that was the tone of the day. Adegbile's supporters called it a smear. And Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont cried foul, pointing out that no Republicans would work with him to help cops by sending more federal money to buy bulletproof vests.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Not a single Republican has joined me in the effort to reauthorize what was a bipartisan piece of legislation that actually saves the lives of police officers. But, boy, they will come down here and wax eloquently and misleadingly against this good nominee.

JOHNSON: Adegbile has worked for Leahy for months as an aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But before that, he spent a decade at the Legal Defense Fund and twice argued voting rights cases before the Supreme Court.

Adegbile pulled himself out of poverty and periods of homelessness as the child of immigrants in the Bronx. President Obama held him out as an illustration of the American Dream. Solid qualifications to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, says LDF President Sherrilyn Ifill, especially since lawyers who work for defendants in criminal cases are simply doing their job.

SHERRILYN IFILL: The criminal defendants that we represent, we represent to vindicate constitutional principles. And it's never more important than in capital cases, when we're talking about the state exercising the authority to take the life of a human being.

JOHNSON: After all, Ifill says, that never stopped John Roberts from getting confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

IFILL: That's why even people like Chief Justice John Roberts could donate 25 hours of pro bono service to the representation of a man who had committed multiple murders in the state of Florida.

JOHNSON: But sources tell NPR the administration never properly vetted Adegbile's nomination with police groups before it happened. And the cops were furious. Law enforcement turned up the heat and Senate Democrats badly miscalculated the numbers. They labored to check the votes of several Democrats facing close elections this fall, but overlooked too many members of their base.

Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada gave voice to the uncertainty.

SEN. HARRY REID: I sure hope that we get enough votes for this good man. If we don't, maybe it's time America had a good discussion on civil rights.

JOHNSON: As the vote drew near, Vice President Joe Biden showed up to help break a possible tie. But so many Democrats defected that it wasn't even close.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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