The Senate narrowly voted Thursday to advance the nomination of Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to be the state’s next US attorney for Massachusetts, clearing a key hurdle in one of the more bitter partisan fights over a Biden administration nominee.
The 50-47 vote along party lines took place after an animated debate during which her sponsors, Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, praised her innovative approach to prosecution, while a vocal Republican branded her a radical reformer who wants to dismantle the criminal justice system from within.
Rollins still needs a final vote by the full Senate to be confirmed.
Markey, who along with Warren submitted Rollins’s name to President Biden in January, made an impassioned plea on the Senate floor, calling Rollins “a prosecutor at her core,” who has a strong record of prosecuting criminals that has been “distorted and mischaracterized” by Republicans.
“The opposition to Rachael Rollins is nothing more than a deeply partisan ploy to score political points at the expense of the record of a respected, qualified, courageous, Black, female, progressive district attorney. It is offensive, and it is not in service to public safety,” said Markey.
Warren said Rollins did exactly what she promised to do when she ran for district attorney, adopting innovative policies that “are designed to improve the administration of justice and to reduce crime.”
Warren said homicides have dropped in Boston by a third during the first nine months of 2021, a drop that stands in “stark contrast” to nationwide trends.
But Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who led the opposition to Rollins’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee, said Rollins is “so radical” that she is without precedent as a US attorney nominee.
Rollins could not immediately be reached for comment after the vote.
In September, the Judiciary Committee split evenly, 11-11, on Rollins’s nomination, with all Republican members opposed. Because of the deadlock, a majority of senators needed to agree to consider her nomination. And on Thursday, majority leader Chuck Schumer requested that vote.
No date has been set yet for the confirmation vote. It is likely that vote would mirror Thursday’s, a Markey aide said. Three Republicans did not vote. If they oppose her in the final vote, the tally would be 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris would have to step in to cast the deciding vote.
Markey called the opposition to Rollins and the Judiciary Committee’s September deadlocked vote “truly outrageous.” For the last three decades, he said, senators have approved presidential nominees for US attorney on voice votes even when individual members strongly disagreed with the choices.
The Senate approved all 85 US attorney nominees of former president Donald Trump, Markey said, “despite disagreement with multiple nominees’ records and ideology.”
But Cotton made it clear at the Judiciary Committee hearing in September that he would fight her nomination to the end.
“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,” Cotton said at the hearing. “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.”
On the Senate floor Thursday, Cotton doubled down, saying, “Rachael Rollins believes the American criminal justice is racist and rotten to its core.
“And the Democrats want to put her in charge of prosecuting criminals in the largest state in New England. Rachael Rollins wants to destroy the criminal justice system from within. That’s not hyperbole.”
Warren urged her colleagues to support Rollins, calling her “a dedicated public servant” who has “devoted her career to transforming the criminal justice system so that it actually reduces crime and provides equal justice for all.”
Since her nomination was announced, dozens of prominent Massachusetts Republicans, Democrats, and nonpartisan law enforcement officials, community advocates, and members of the legal community have written in support of her nomination.
Among those who have spoken out publicly on her behalf are former Republican governor William Weld, former US attorneys, the Suffolk County Law Enforcement Executives, and many others. They are the people who know her best, who have worked with her, and who know her record of success as a prosecutor, Warren said.
“Rachael has implemented some innovative policies — exactly as she promised to do when she ran for district attorney,” Warren said. “Those policies may not be preferred by some senators, but the facts speak for themselves.”
Thursday’s vote went strictly along party lines, with Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, and John Thune of South Dakota not voting.
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.