The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Democrats stop DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary? Not likely, sources say.

Donald Trump listens as Betsy DeVos speaks at a “USA Thank You Tour 2016” event at the DeltaPlex in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s nomination of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education might be the most controversial of his Cabinet picks, and one that Democrats had hopes of blocking in the Senate. But sources in the Senate say that it doesn’t look like the Democrats will be able to get enough votes to stop her.

DeVos is seen as a champion of school choice to supporters but as a radical who wants to privatize public education to critics, someone who once called America’s public schools “a dead end.” Even some school reformers who support education views that are similar to DeVos’s have come out against her, questioning her stated desire to help traditional public schools improve.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had a confirmation hearing for DeVos nearly two weeks ago, which only fueled the opposition to her because she displayed a lack of understanding of some key education issues, including what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was (though she later sent a letter to a senator trying to clarify her position).

At her confirmation hearing for education secretary on Jan. 17, Betsy DeVos gave some befuddling answers. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/The Washington Post)

Senate offices have been swamped with calls, emails and letters; the National Education Association said more than a million emails opposing DeVos went to senators through a recent campaign. There are petitions and there have been protests, including Sunday on Capitol Hill. Hundreds of alumni and students from her alma mater, Calvin College, wrote a letter to legislators saying she is unqualified to be education secretary.

On Thursday night, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) told Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show that no Democrat will vote to confirm her, and that Democrats were courting Republican votes. As he noted, the Democrats believe they have 48 solid votes; they need 51 to win, a pickup of three Republicans.

But Democratic and Republican sources in the Senate, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of negotiations about the vote, say that DeVos is expected to win approval by the education committee when it votes on Tuesday, and that she will prevail on the floor of the Senate whenever that vote happens.

The sources said that Republican Senate leaders have worked to keep Republicans in the fold to confirm DeVos. There were some Democratic hopes that some Republicans would switch sides on this one confirmation vote.

For example, during the confirmation hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that DeVos’s vision of expanding school choice — charter schools and voucher/voucher-like programs that use public funds to pay for private schools —  doesn’t work well in rural areas where there aren’t other options besides traditional public schools to provide choices other than traditional public schools.

Trump’s education nominee and her family members are major donors to the senators who will vote on her confirmation[/interstitial_link]

Murkowski hasn’t said how she will vote, nor has Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, who is often said to be more “moderate” than other Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Murkowski is one of five Republican senators on the committee to whom DeVos and family members have given donations; the other four are Sens. Richard Burr, Tim Scott, Bill Cassidy and Todd C. Young.

Democrats had asked Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the education committee, for a second hearing before the confirmation vote. During the first hearing, every Democrat asked for more than the allotted five minutes to ask her questions and Alexander refused.

Democrats sent questions to DeVos — more than 800, with several hundred sub-questions — but as of Sunday night had not yet received the responses, sources said. They also had not received questions that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the committee, had asked about what she believes is missing information in the DeVos’s financial paperwork that she submitted to the panel.