Betsy DeVos is expected to be narrowly confirmed as Education secretary on Tuesday after a contentious process in which Democrats sought the one more vote they need to sink her nomination. A final vote is expected at midday.
While DeVos was expected to squeak by in the Senate, Democrats continued their last-minute push to find a Republican who would join Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in breaking ranks with their party to vote against the confirmation.
Democrats held the floor throughout the night and early Tuesday after a fierce campaign opposing DeVos by outside education groups and parents who clogged senators’ phone lines, sent thousands of emails, posted on social media and protested outside of senators’ district offices and in front of the Capitol.
Democrats attacked DeVos for appearing confused at her confirmation hearing about a federal education law on students with disabilities and for pledging to support an end to gun-free zones at schools. They also argued that DeVos, a wealthy school choice advocate, lacked public education experience, is unfamiliar with education law and policies that she would be charged with carrying out and has not been forthcoming about her family’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.
According to disclosures with the Office of Government Ethics, DeVos said she would divest herself of more than 100 assets, but she would keep others deemed not to be a conflict of interest.
“She would start her job with no credibility inside the agency she is supposed to lead, with no influence in Congress, as the punchline in late night comedy shows, and without the confidence of the American people,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education and Labor Committee, said on the Senate floor Monday. “A vote for Betsy DeVos is a vote for a secretary of Education who is likely to succeed only in further dividing us on education issues.”
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told reporters Monday that part of his hesitation in voting for DeVos was her apparent unwillingness to put her role as a private advocate aside to take on the role of the top government official overseeing public schools. While DeVos promised during her hearing to support public schools, Casey said he got a different impression during a private meeting with her.
“It was clear to me she had no intention of being the champion for public education I would hope for,” he said.
Yet the remaining 50 Republicans supporting DeVos did not waiver in their stance. They painted DeVos’ lack of experience as a plus, saying she would help move power from the federal government to state and local education officials.
“Yes, Mrs. DeVos is going to shake things up a little bit,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on the Senate floor Monday. “But more importantly, she's going to be a part of this effort to return power to parents and teachers and our local school districts.”
With an evenly split Senate, Vice President Mike Pence would have to cast an unprecedented tie-breaking vote to confirm her nomination. DeVos has long advocated vouchers that allow low-income students in failing public schools to attend charter and private schools instead, taking taxpayer dollars with them.
Even if she is confirmed, a federal voucher program would face hurdles. An amendment to a national elementary and secondary school law that would have allowed states to start voucher programs with federal funds did not pass a Republican-controlled Senate in 2015. Eight Republicans, including Collins and Murkowski, voted against the program. That group includes Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who said she would vote to confirm DeVos' even while being clear she had not changed her position on vouchers.
“I have received assurances from her in writing that the Department of Education will not impose new federal mandates related to vouchers on our schools,” said Fischer in a statement. “Local educators, schools boards, and parents should be the decision makers, not bureaucrats in Washington.”