Steven Menashi, an associate White House counsel, was recommended, 12-10, for a seat on the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All 12 votes in favor of Menashi were by Republicans, while all 10 Democrats voted no.
Senators from both parties complained that Menashi failed to answer questions at his nomination hearing, and Democrats said he has a troubling record on immigration, race, women's equality and LGBTQ rights.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel's top Democrat, said Menashi "has a long history of attacking those with whom he disagrees" and said his refusal to answer questions "makes it difficult for us to fulfill our constitutional role to advise and consent" on presidential nominees.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., called Menashi "a calamity" and a "wacko" and said his past writings and record as a Trump administration lawyer make him dangerously unqualified.
Democrats said they were especially unhappy about a report Wednesday night in The New York Times that Menashi played key role in a plan by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny debt relief to thousands of students swindled by for-profit colleges.
"I think it's really appalling that this committee only learned about this memo (by Menashi) through a leak in The New York Times," Feinstein said, noting that Menashi had refused to answer senators' questions about the student debt program during his hearing or in writing afterward.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Menashi "could have been more forthcoming, quite frankly," but that Menashi believed he owed the White House and Education Department confidentiality.
"He's a lawyer that buys into what they are trying to do," Graham said, referring to the Trump administration.
Graham, who expressed frustration with Menashi during his September hearing, said the nominee "has written some really weird stuff" and is "different than I would have chosen." But he said Menashi is qualified for the federal bench.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., also expressed frustration at Menashi's failure to answer his questions, but blamed White House lawyers who "over-coached" Menashi and urged him not to cooperate with the committee.
"Some of his views are eclectic, and some of them I don't agree with," Kennedy said of Menashi, "but his views are very, very carefully reasoned."
Addressing senators from both parties - and himself, Kennedy urged lawmakers not to decide on nominees based on ideology.
"I don't think we ought to consider honest disagreements to be character flaws," Kennedy said. "I've contributed to that. We all have, but it's gotten worse every day I've been here."
The panel's vote sends Menashi's nomination to the Senate floor.
Menashi has come under fire for his past writings, including some in which he assailed "leftist multiculturism" and accused gay rights groups of exploiting the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.
Menashi also has been criticized for his work on immigration with White House adviser Stephen Miller and at the Education Department, including on a policy that offered new guidance on investigating campus sexual assaults. Critics say the change allows schools to apply a tougher standard of evidence for sexual violence than other civil rights cases and violates Title IX, a federal law forbidding discrimination based on sex in education.
Protesters disrupted his nomination hearing, shouting "Title IX is on the line."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called Menashi's nomination "an embarrassment to this country" and "an insult to millions of hardworking young Americans saddled by student debt, an insult to women, the LGBTQ community and everybody who believes in the rule of law."
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