The Senate advanced a nominee for a North Carolina federal trial court seat by a razor-thin margin on Wednesday with Vice President Mike Pence stepping in to break a 50-50 tie, but the nomination could still falter amid concerns about the candidate’s record on voting rights and Senate wrangling over a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Pence cast the deciding ballot on a procedural vote toward a final decision on the nomination of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC shareholder Thomas Farr. Every Democrat and one Republican voted against Farr’s nomination. The GOP no vote came from Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is carrying through on a threat to vote against all judicial nominations until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., allows a vote on the Mueller bill.
The nomination still hangs in the air as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who voted to move Farr’s nomination to a final vote, said he hasn’t made up his mind. Scott, who waited the better part of an hour to cast his ballot after voting began Wednesday, told reporters that he was still reviewing Farr’s record on voting rights, which has been Democrats’ main complaint about the pick.
Scott told reporters he has been investigating Farr’s background, including his involvement in the re-election campaign of former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990 as well as Helms’ 1984 campaign. Scott said he has spoken to Farr as well as to the author of a U.S. Department of Justice memo on the Helms campaign covering allegations that it violated the Voting Rights Act.
A large number of civil rights groups, including Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP and Alliance for Justice, have opposed Farr’s nomination over his involvement in the Helms campaign as well as his defense of North Carolina’s voter identification statute and voting maps. In one statement, the NAACP said Farr was the “coordinator” of efforts to suppress the votes of African-Americans.
Scott, the lone African-American Republican in the Senate, has faced pressure from those groups and others since McConnell scheduled the vote. He said Wednesday that although Farr may not be the best pick, he has not made up his mind.
“There are a lot of folks who can be judges in states throughout the nation, including North Carolina, besides Tom Farr,” he said.
Scott was also key to the only failed circuit court nomination of President Donald Trump’s term so far: Ryan Bounds, a Ninth Circuit nominee. His racially charged college writings concerned Scott and a few other Republicans who said they would vote against the pick. Rather than have the vote fail, Senate leaders canceled the ballot.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Scott said his party could do better in dealing with issues of race, including making better long-term decisions to make the party more inclusive.
“We’re not doing a very good job of avoiding the obvious potholes on race in America, and we ought to be more sensitive when it comes to those issues,” Scott said.
Farr was initially nominated for the seat during the George W. Bush administration, but the nomination was not acted on. The Senate subsequently refused to consider any of the nominees for the seat put forward by President Barack Obama. Since then, the open seat has become the longest-pending vacancy in the nation, and Democrats have complained that Republicans blocked consideration of the two African-American nominees for the vacancy.
A final vote on Farr’s nomination could come as early as Thursday. There are 31 other judicial nominees awaiting consideration on the Senate floor, and they could face similarly close votes thanks to Flake.
Flake has led what has so far been a lonely effort on the Republican side to get the Special Counsel bill passed. The legislation, which would codify existing rules for dismissing the special counsel and establish judicial review for any firings, has languished on the Senate floor for months because of opposition by Senate leadership.
After Flake and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., announced another push to get the bill passed earlier this month, they were stymied by McConnell in two efforts to allow floor consideration of the measure. McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Trump himself have opposed the bill.