WASHINGTON — The historic nomination of Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to be US attorney for Massachusetts has triggered a partisan brawl in the Senate, leading to a deadlocked committee vote Thursday that complicates her path to confirmation.
Republicans on the panel, who so far almost unanimously have backed all of President Biden’s other picks for US attorney, all opposed Rollins, branding the progressive reformer as a radical prosecutor who wants to dismantle the criminal justice system from the inside.
“Miss Rollins appears to measure success as a prosecutor not by how many victims and innocent people she protects, but rather by how many criminals she keeps from facing consequences,” said Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who is leading the fight against her. “If she’s confirmed as the US attorney, the cartels and the gangs that are fueling violence and death in our communities will be gleeful.”
Democrats denounced the attacks during a contentious Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday. It ended with the panel’s members evenly split along party lines on confirming Rollins, who would be the first Black woman to hold the job as the state’s top federal law enforcement official.
“Ms. Rollins has worked closely with law enforcement to keep neighborhoods safe, to rebuild trust between police and the community, and to pursue justice for crime victims,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.
The 11-11 tie does not kill her confirmation, but will seriously slow it, forcing Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to hold an additional vote by the full Senate just to bring up her nomination. That vote, and Rollins’s subsequent confirmation, only requires a simple majority, so Democrats said they expect her ultimately to win approval. But with no margin for error in the evenly divided Senate, unified Republican opposition to Rollins would endanger her confirmation if just a single Democrat opposes her.
Rollins said Thursday that she remained optimistic.
“I knew this was not going to be easy, and that the work we’re doing here in Boston is scary to some people who are deeply invested in the status quo because the system works incredibly well for them,” she said when asked about the nomination process during a virtual appearance at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
“Although it is a tie,” Rollins said, “it is not a loss.”
The vote was delayed a week by Cotton so he could organize Republican opposition. Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Democrats who strongly support Rollins, lobbied committee members to back her nomination. But the partisan split was clear from the start of the meeting.
The drama unfolded out of the spotlight on Capitol Hill, as negotiations within the divided Democratic caucus threatened to sink Biden’s economic agenda. Republicans were breaking with decades of deference to home state senators on US attorney confirmations, Democrats said, highlighting bipartisan support for Rollins’s nomination from law enforcement officials in Massachusetts.
“To sit here and listen to the characterization of Rachael Rollins as a pro-criminal radical, I think that’s really quite insane,” said Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii.
But Republicans warned that confirming her would be dangerous. Cotton, who came to the meeting armed with four large placards criticizing Rollins’s record and statements, called her a prosecutor “in name only.” He said she and progressive prosecutors in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles got elected “with the express purpose of igniting revolution and destroying our criminal justice system from within.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, also ripped into Rollins, joining Cotton in criticizing her for a policy of declining in most instances to prosecute several low-level, nonviolent crimes that she argued have led to over-incarceration, especially for people of color.
“A week ago, I had no idea who Rachael Rollins was . . . then when I looked at her record, it takes your breath away,” he said. He linked her to the defund-the-police movement and said she had “horrific” policies, including declining to prosecute crimes like shoplifting and possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
“If you want to steal a bunch of stuff, this is your person,” Cruz said. He later added, “So if you’re a drug dealer, get yourself to Massachusetts.”
Cotton and Cruz are potential 2024 presidential candidates and their attacks on Rollins suggest they believe opposing a prominent figure in the push for criminal justice reform will shore up their political base. Much of the population of New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, is in the Boston media market, providing another potential political benefit to them for opposing Rollins.
Democrats rallied to her defense.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker criticized Republicans for attacking Rollins’s character, saying after the hearing that the rhetoric was “toxic.” He reminded his colleagues that the committee received letters of support from law enforcement officials and former Republican prosecutors.
Rollins’s nomination is backed by several former US attorneys for Massachusetts, including Republicans Michael Sullivan, William Weld, and Wayne Budd. They are among dozens of state district attorneys, law enforcement officials, and social justice advocates who wrote letters of support for Rollins that Warren and Markey have distributed to senators.
“If these things were true, then why does she have Republican leaders that are not from Arkansas but are from her community that are writing to this committee?” Booker said at the meeting. “They’re not pro-criminal activists, They’re not radical. They’re not igniting revolutions. They know the candidate and they have worked with her.”
Speaking at the chamber of commerce event, Rollins defended her decision to not prosecute many low-level, nonviolent crimes, in part because of the high cost to the public for each person who is incarcerated.
“All I’m trying to do is steer people away from the criminal legal system for nonviolent, nonserious things,” she said.
Warren and Markey are not on the committee and they downplayed the complications caused by the tie vote, saying in a joint statement that they still “expect our colleagues will confirm her swiftly.”
Biden nominated Rollins in July as part of his first slate of US attorney choices, a diverse group of eight nominees that included two Black women and four Black men. All but Rollins were approved by the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 23 in a single, unanimous voice vote. Eight more US attorney picks were approved by voice vote Thursday, with only one Republican in opposition, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.
Durbin noted that the committee approved all 85 of former president Donald Trump’s US attorney picks by unanimous voice vote, the typical practice for such nominees. Cotton requested a roll call vote, which the committee had not held for a US attorney nominee since 1993, Durbin said.
He implied Democrats could use the same tactics with a Republican president.
“Comity is a two-way street,” Durbin said. “I hope my colleagues will rethink an approach that departs from a 30-year precedent and fails to recognize the support Ms. Rollins has and her unquestionable qualifications for this job.”
Christina Prignano and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed.