A Senate panel voted along party lines Tuesday to advance President Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, sending her nomination to the full Senate for final approval amid the first signs of fissures within the GOP majority over her fitness for the job.
Two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), made clear that they have not decided how they will vote on the floor, suggesting that DeVos’s confirmation is not assured. Democrats are seeking to block DeVos’s confirmation, but they must vote as a bloc on the floor and persuade at least three Republicans to break with the new president.
Collins and Murkowski both said they believe that DeVos — a billionaire who has spent decades advocating for charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers — has the best interest of children at heart. But the two senators also said they are not yet persuaded that she is prepared to lead the Education Department, given her lack of experience in public education.
“She may be unaware of what’s broken in our public schools and how to fix it,” said Murkowski, who said that her state includes many isolated rural communities where vouchers and charter schools are not reasonable solutions to what ails education.
DeVos is a major donor to Republican causes who has become one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks, drawing unprecedented opposition for a prospective education secretary. Debate over her nomination has been marked by a sharp partisanship unusual for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has often managed to find bipartisan compromise on key issues, including sweeping education legislation in 2015. On Tuesday, the Republican-led committee voted 12 to 11 to advance DeVos’s nomination.
“This is a committee of considerable differences of opinion. But it’s also a committee that has on big occasions been able to resolve those differences of opinion, usually in a cordial way. I’m sorry to say that we are not able to do that this time,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman.
Republicans defended DeVos as a bold reformer who is willing to shrink the federal imprint on education and upend the status quo in the interest of expanding opportunities for disadvantaged children.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said DeVos’s impatience with failing public schools should be welcomed. “For our children in underperforming schools, this is a sentence for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That is the real travesty.”
Democrats argued DeVos is wholly unqualified for the job. They accused her of favoring policies that undermine the public schools that serve most U.S. children, and said that she has not adequately answered questions about potential conflicts of interest related to her investments.
“The overwhelming majority of kids who go to public schools, they deserve a champion of public schools,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Alexander forced Tuesday’s vote over objections from Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, who sought a delay to ask more questions of DeVos. Alexander argued that DeVos — who fielded more than 1,000 written questions from Democrats — is already “the most questioned education secretary in the history of the Senate.” Alexander himself held the post under President George H.W. Bush.
Murray countered that DeVos had failed to answer critical questions about her finances, and that many of DeVos’s responses appeared to be “cut and pasted from previous statements,” an apparent reference to sentences and phrases that DeVos appeared to use unattributed from other sources — including a top Obama administration civil rights official. She called Alexander’s decision to go ahead with the vote a “massive break” with bipartisanship.
“It will dramatically impact our ability to work together in good faith going forward,” she said. “The usual practices are being ignored here. . . . This nominee is being jammed through with corners being cut and with the minority being brushed aside, and I think that’s wrong.”
Democrats’ complaints about the confirmation process sharpened after Republicans voted to approve DeVos.
Murray challenged the result, arguing that since one of the Republicans — Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) — voted by proxy, his vote didn’t count under committee rules, and the outcome was really an 11-t0-11 tie.
Republicans disputed that point but revoted with Hatch present — over the objections of Democrats, who said that another vote could not happen without official notice. Again, the vote was 12 to 11.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called it a “steamroll job.” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) accused Republicans of overriding committee rules to “protect” Trump’s nominee.
Democrats repeatedly raised concerns about DeVos’s performance at a confirmation hearing Jan. 17. She stumbled over basic policy questions, at one point saying that states should be allowed to decide whether to follow a 1975 law that protects students with disabilities.
“This woman has less knowledge about education than almost anyone who has any interest in education,” Franken said.
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos left open the possibility that she might seek to cut education funding or support privatizing public schools. She passed up a chance to reassure senators who are concerned that she intends to scale back the Education Department’s efforts to enforce civil rights laws in schools. And she rejected a ban on guns in schools, saying that some schools might need firearms to defend against “potential grizzlies” — a line that became fodder for late-night comics.
Her hearing performance unleashed a broad new wave of opposition, carried along in part by the Women’s March on Washington and other anti-Trump efforts. In recent weeks, Senate offices have been swamped with phone calls and emails opposing DeVos’s confirmation.
Murkowski said that such calls and visits from Alaskans have contributed to her unease about DeVos.