Wednesday’s word that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska would not back education secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos in a full Senate vote created momentum against DeVos. Since that news, no GOP senator has come out against DeVos.
Without another GOP senator to vote against DeVos, the vote tally appears to be 50-50, assuming all Democrats plus Collins and Murkowski vote against DeVos. Vice President Mike Pence would then be in a position to break that tie. But Pence couldn’t overrule a 51-49 vote against DeVos. So who are the GOP senators who appear publicly undecided about DeVos?
Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska is still apparently weighing her options. “On DeVos, Senator Fischer visited with Mrs. DeVos earlier this week. The senator’s still digging into some issues, so I don’t have an answer for you on that yet,” her spokeswoman told us on Wednesday.
We identified Fischer as one of four GOP senators from rural states who voted against a 2015 proposal to create a federal voucher plan. Nebraska has no law allowing charter schools, and no vouchers, so school choice doesn’t have significant political force in Fischer’s state. Fischer is also up for re-election in 2018, although it’s unclear how much, or if, that might play into Fischer’s calculations regarding DeVos. Also keep in mind that President Donald Trump won Nebraska in 2016.
UPDATE: Fischer released a statement Thursday saying she plans to support DeVos. That means her confirmation appears likely to proceed, with Vice President Mike Pence poised to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm her, unless another senator who had previously indicated support decides to not to vote for her, or a Democrat decides to cross party lines and vote in favor of her. Sen. Al Franken , D-Minn., told MSNBC that all Democrats were planning to vote as a block against DeVos.
If the vote total for DeVos is tied at 50-50 as expected, this would be the first time in history that a vice president has had to cast the deciding vote in favor of a cabinet nominee.
Activists and advocates opposed to DeVos are also focusing on Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. They may have an uphill climb: Portman has received campaign contributions directly from Betsy DeVos (although so did Murkowski, for what it’s worth.) And unlike Fischer, he voted in favor of that 2015 voucher program. But he’s seen as a relative moderate in GOP circles. We’ve twice asked Portman’s office for comment, but have yet to hear back. Trump won Ohio in 2016. There appeared to be no statement about DeVos on Portman’s official website as of Thursday morning. UPDATE: That uphill climb now appears to be futile: Portman said in a statement Thursday that he supports DeVos’ nomination.
Here’s one possibility to keep in mind about Wednesday’s events: Collins and Murkowski may have decided to vote against DeVos in part because the “whip count” (the tally of Republican senators who will vote for DeVos) appears safe even without their votes. In this way, those two senators can please voters in their home states who don’t like DeVos, without ultimately sinking DeVos’ nomination and facing political backlash from GOP leadership and Trump.
Below is a list of several GOP senators who we’ve checked in with, or seen statements from, regarding DeVos.
- Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia: Capito’s West Virginia colleague, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, came out against DeVos. But Capito will vote for DeVos, according to her spokeswoman. “As a passionate advocate for children and learning, Betsy DeVos has devoted herself to improving education in her home state of Michigan and across the country,” Capito’s spokeswoman said.
- Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona: In an homage to the movie “Jerry Maguire,” Flake announced on Twitter that DeVos “had me at ‘school choice’ years ago.” So he’s a vote in favor of DeVos.
- Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas: Moran’s statement to us indicated his support for DeVos, but it has some gray areas. Moran said he’s had “serious concerns” about DeVos, but that he feels much better about the nominee after meeting with her.
- Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada: Heller said he will support DeVos in large part because of Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval backs her. Heller said in a statement that, “Having his support weighed heavily on my decision to vote for her confirmation. Betsy DeVos understands the need to bring back education control to state and local boards, and I look forward to working with her to empower our parents, teachers, students, and local education officials.
- Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska: A spokesman for Sullivan told us the senator “will be voting yes” on DeVos. So Sullivan won’t be following in his fellow Alaska senator’s path.
- Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania: Some anti-DeVos activists had indicated Toomey might be a vote against DeVos. It’s not entirely clear why, since on Nov. 23, the day Trump announced DeVos as his nominee, Toomey called her a great choice on Twitter. And he just reiterated his support for DeVos.