WASHINGTON -- Mumia Abu-Jamal, a name that for more than three decades has stirred emotional divisions in Philadelphia and across oceans, was at the center of a stunning defeat Wednesday for President Barack Obama, as the Senate blocked a presidential nominee who had worked on the convicted cop killer's death penalty appeal.
In a 47-52 vote, Republicans and eight Democrats blocked a key procedural step in the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a former NAACP lawyer whom Mr. Obama had tapped to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"This is a big win for Pennsylvania, for the country and for anybody who cares about our criminal justice system," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who led the fight against the nominee.
Democrats said Republicans had blocked an accomplished civil rights lawyer who had argued two voting rights cases in the Supreme Court, and whose role in the Abu-Jamal case had been distorted.
Mr. Obama called the vote "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks."
Abu-Jamal is serving a life term for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Initially sentenced to die, he became a worldwide cause celebre for those who believed he had been railroaded by a racist justice system, while others -- including prosecutors, some police organizations and Faulkner's widow, Maureen -- were incensed by his fame.
Philadelphia region senators shied away from supporting Mr. Adegbile, who in recent years had helped fight prosecutors' attempts to reinstate Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
Sens. Bob Casey, D.-Pa,, and Chris Coons, D-Del., were among the seven Democrats who opposed the nomination. The eighth vote came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for procedural reasons so it could come up again, even as he argued for confirmation.
Mr.Adegbile is the first Obama appointee blocked since November, when Democrats changed Senate rules to require only a majority, not 60 votes, to advance a nomination.
Aside from Mr. Casey and Mr. Coons, Democratic opposition came from senators in conservative-leaning states such as West Virginia's Joe Manchin and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, and from incumbents facing difficult re-election fights, such as Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Montana's John Walsh. Indiana's Joe Donnelly joined them.
Mr. Adegbile was named to head a Justice Department unit that works to ensure voting rights, enforce laws protecting the disabled and guard against employer discrimination.
The Senate debate touched on questions of justice, the guarantee of a legal defense for even unpopular figures and the image of a young police officer shot in the head as he lay wounded in a Philadelphia street.
Mr. Toomey read a letter from Maureen Faulkner on the Senate floor: "The thought that Mr. Adegbile would be rewarded in part for the work he did for my husband's killer is revolting. Please spare my family and me from further pain."
Mr. Adegbile, a teenager when Faulkner was killed, became involved in the case while working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The fund filed friend-of-the-court briefs in 2006, as prosecutors were pushing to reinstate Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
In 2011, when Mr. Adegbile was its director of litigation, the NAACP fund took a direct role representing Abu-Jamal. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee this year that the decision was made by the fund's president. He said he played only a supervisory role for lawyers in the case.
The Supreme Court ultimately let stand a ruling sparing Abu-Jamal from death row. With Ms. Faulkner's consent, Philadelphia's district attorney reluctantly said in 2011 he would drop further appeals.
Mr. Adegbile defended his work, saying lawyers had a duty to vigorously represent even unpopular clients.
Some Democrats on Wednesday accused Republicans of creating a caricature of an attorney who had devoted his career to civil rights.