With a historic tie-breaking vote by the vice-president, Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education on Tuesday in the closest Senate vote so far for one of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees.
The Republican mega-donor’s confirmation came despite a desperate last-ditch show of defiance by Democrats, who forced an all-night session of the Senate.
But on Tuesday, as two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joined all 48 Democrats in opposing DeVos’s nomination, the Senate was tied 50-50. In his constitutional role as president of the Senate, Pence broke the tie in favor of DeVos. It represented the 245th tie-breaking vote by a vice-president in the history of the United States – and the first on a cabinet nomination.
Pence did not appear in the Senate chamber until the vote had almost finished. Then, reading from a script on the dais, the vice-president announced his tie-breaking vote for DeVos’s nomination. After some impromptu coaching to help Pence through his first time presiding over the chamber, the vice-president left the chamber and was replaced in the chair by Ted Cruz, who presided over a rapidly emptying chamber.
The vote was scheduled so that it would precede consideration of Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general. If Sessions had been confirmed first, he would have been forced to resign his Senate seat and would have been unable to vote for DeVos, which would have torpedoed her nomination.
DeVos has faced a vast grassroots campaign against her as the Capitol switchboard has been inundated with phone calls. A longtime charter school activist, she originally received warm support from many anti-Trump figures in the Republican establishment such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. However, she became a center of controversy during her turbulent confirmation hearing where she struggled to answer simple questions about education policy and suggested that guns be allowed in schools to ward off bear attacks.
Her performance led Democrats to deride her in stark terms. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, slammed DeVos on the Senate floor on Monday. “Cabinet secretaries can’t be expected to know everything. But this is different,” said Schumer. “The nominee for secretary of education doesn’t know some of the most basic facts about education policy.”
After the vote, he tweeted:
As a political activist and philanthropist, DeVos has spent decades lobbying to expand charter schools and voucher programs, which allow public funds to pay tuition at private and religious schools.
Her family spent millions advancing Pence’s voucher program in Indiana. On Fox News on Sunday, Pence called it a “high honor” to cast the deciding vote in her confirmation.
Yet DeVos has never held public office or worked as an educator. She never attended public school nor did she send her children to public schools. Opponents say her lack of experience is unprecedented.
In one exchange at her confirmation hearing, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota asked DeVos whether test scores should measure a student’s proficiency or their growth over time – an argument at the center of the education reform debate. DeVos appeared unfamiliar with the distinction.
“It surprises me that you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.
In another exchange, DeVos appeared confused about a federal civil rights law protecting students with disabilities and suggested it was an issue best left to individual states.
The New Hampshire senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat whose son has cerebral palsy, asked DeVos if she understood it was already federal law. “I may have confused it,” DeVos conceded.
She also would not commit to upholding guidance issued by the Obama administration to combat sexual assault on campus.
DeVos’s performance in her confirmation hearing had evidently alienated some senators. Maine Republican Susan Collins told reporters that “the major factor” in her no vote was “Mrs Devos’s performance at her hearing”. Specifically, Collins cited the new education secretary’s “lack of familiarity with the Individuals with Disability Education Act”.
Collins also seemed to criticize DeVos for being far too focused on the issue of vouchers at the expense of other issues affecting public education. “It’s clear to me Mrs DeVos sees education through the lens of someone who is a very strong advocate for vouchers and charter schools,” said Collins. “That is important when you are facing a city with failed schools like DC or Detroit but in my state public schools are the heart and soul of communities.”
After the vote, Democrats seemed to be viewing Pence’s appearance as an accomplishment. Dick Durbin, the No 2 Democrat in the Senate noted that this was “the first time in history that a nominee for a cabinet position could only reach that position with a vote by a vice-president”. That “doesn’t speak well of [Trump’s] choices” for cabinet, he said, adding that the tie vote meant DeVos was “not the right person for the job by the vote of the Senate”. Durbin added that her confirmation came “at a price which no other nominee has paid so it comes with an asterisk”.
In contrast, Republicans shrugged off the tie-breaking vote. When asked if Pence’s presence amounted to a moral victory for Democrats, Tim Scott of South Carolina said: “It’s kind of like asking me was it a moral victory for Atlanta Falcons to win the first half [in Sunday’s Super Bowl, which they eventually lost]. I reckon I am going to count the votes and see if you get to 51.” Scott did, however, see some benefit from the confirmation fight as the “start of a necessary conversation” on education, which he described “as the biggest issue of the day and perhaps of the year”.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said the fact Pence had to be dragged in to break Democrats’ “historic and partisan logjam” was “another glaring reminder of the unprecedented obstruction that Senate Democrats have engaged in in this process”.
Noting the slow pace of other cabinet nominee confirmations, he accused Senate Democrats of “childish tactics” that ignored voters’ desire to see change in Washington.
He added: “Democrats have stalled over and over again … It’s interesting that we’re focusing on two Republicans when you look at the spectrum of tactics by Democrats … It’s not Republicans that have a problem; it’s Democrats that continue to do this.”
Trump hailed his nominee’s confirmation in a tweet:
Additional reporting by David Smith