The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos on Tuesday as education secretary, approving the beleaguered nominee only with the help of a historic tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.
The 51-50 vote elevates DeVos — a wealthy donor from Michigan who has devoted much of her life to expanding educational choice through charter schools and vouchers, but has limited experience with the public school system — to be steward of the nation’s schools. She was formally sworn in within hours.
Two Republicans voted against DeVos’ confirmation, a sign that some members of President Donald Trump’s party are willing to go against him, possibly foreshadowing difficulty on some of the president’s more contentious legislative priorities.
It was the first time that a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a Cabinet nomination, according to the Senate historian. And it was the first time a vice president cast a tiebreaking vote on anything in the Senate since Republican Dick Cheney did so nine years ago as part of then-President George W. Bush’s administration.
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Taking the gavel as the vote deadlocked at 50-50, Pence, a former member of the House, declared his vote for DeVos before announcing that Trump’s nominee for education secretary had been confirmed.
The two Republicans who voted against the nominee, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their opposition to her last week. In back-to-back floor speeches, the lawmakers said DeVos was unqualified because of a lack of familiarity with public schools and with laws meant to protect students, despite her passion for helping them.
Collins and Murkowski said they had also been influenced by the thousands of messages they had received urging them to reject the nomination.
For many in the education community, DeVos’ full-throated support for charter schools and vouchers — which allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private, religious and for-profit schools — is emblematic of a disconnection from the realities of the education system. Neither DeVos nor any of her children attended a public school. And she has never taken out a federal student loan, which is striking when considering she will head a department that is the country’s largest provider of student loans.
Having grown up in a wealthy family and married into the Amway fortune, DeVos, who has a web of financial investments, has raised red flags among critics who worry about the many opportunities for conflicts of interest. That concern was exacerbated when she became the first of Trump’s nominees not to complete an ethics review before appearing before a Senate panel.
Despite clamorous objections to DeVos from teachers’ unions and even some charter organizations that typically oppose them, opponents nonetheless fell shy of defeating her nomination. Most Republicans described her as committed and determined to put what is best for children above all else.
Both Texas senators voted for her and predicted she’ll do a good job.
She will fight to take power away from the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and return it to where it belongs — to parents and teachers back home in our local school districts.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said of DeVos
“The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education is welcome news for students and parents in Texas and across our great nation,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement. “DeVos brings decades of remarkable experience advocating for policies and programs that empower families and remove barriers to academic choice. Most importantly, she will fight to take power away from the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and return it to where it belongs — to parents and teachers back home in our local school districts.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, agreed, saying Democrats wasted their time trying to derail DeVos.
“They know how this story ends, they know we are going to be successful,” Cornyn said of Senate Democrats. “With stunts like staying up all night and giving speeches I’m not sure who they are trying to impress other than their dysfunctional base.”
Cornyn blasted Democrats for being slow to approve Trump nominees in general.
“At this point in the Obama administration there were 21 Cabinet members confirmed to the seven that are confirmed under the new Trump administration,” Cornyn said. “What I find particularly egregious is that Democrats have slowed down and slow walked and obstructed the nomination, or confirmation of one of the president’s national security Cabinet members that would be Sen. Jeff Sessions, attorney general.”
Conversely, Texas Democrats blasted Tuesday’s vote. About a dozen Democratic protesters had showed up in downtown Fort Worth on Monday where Cruz was making an appearance, urging him to no avail to oppose the nomination.
The fight to save our children’s education from the Trump Republican administration has only just begun.
Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia
“Senators Cruz and Cornyn will pay a price for this; they simply cannot duck and cover from their constituents forever,” Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a statement after the vote. “The fight to save our children’s education from the Trump Republican administration has only just begun.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, vowed that she and other Democrats in the state will fight any effort by DeVos to defund public schools.
“DeVos lacks the most basic qualifications required to serve as secretary and has a history of making statements and promoting ideas that would undermine the public school system,” Lee said in a statement. “... I’m committed to leading the charge against the destructive policies proffered by the new education secretary. At this crucial hour, we cannot afford to fail our children.”
The confirmation vote came after dozens of Democrats took to the Senate floor to speak out against DeVos for most of the day Monday and through the night into Tuesday, a 24-hour last-ditch effort to persuade one more Republican to break party ranks and derail the confirmation. They argued that she doesn’t understand or believe in public schools and that she is not committed to enforcing civil rights laws related to education, and should therefore be disqualified from leading the Education Department.
But as the hours wore on, it became increasingly clear that their effort would fail.
“I hope against hope that another Republican senator will have the courage of the senators from Alaska and Maine and join us,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday morning. But even in defeat, Schumer said, “we Democrats are very proud of what we have done, because the nominee is so unqualified — and now Americans now know that.”
The Democratic speeches were interrupted occasionally by Republicans coming to the nominee’s defense. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said DeVos — who has no professional experience in public education — would bring “fresh eyes” to the job and push for more opportunities for poor and disadvantaged children.
“We need to make sure that every child in every ZIP code has a quality choice,” Scott said Tuesday, moments before the scheduled vote.
Trump also weighed in via Twitter: “Senate Dems protest to keep the failed status quo. Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!” he wrote.
Star-Telegram Washintgon Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty and staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which contains material from The New York Times and The Washington Post.