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Senate Committee Backs Betsy DeVos, But Two Future GOP Votes Uncertain

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 31, 2017 8 min read
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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The Senate education committee voted to move the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary to the full Senate by a vote of 12 to 11 on Tuesday, following remarks that showed the bitter divisions between many Democrats and Republicans about President Donald Trump’s nominee.

However, two Republicans on the committee expressed serious concerns about DeVos and wouldn’t commit to voting for her in the full Senate. Both Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said they had lingering worries about DeVos’ stance on traditional public schools and her understanding of the U.S. Department of Education’s role. The 12-to-11 vote broke along party lines, but not before some drama because in the committee’s first vote on DeVos, one senator voted by proxy.

The date of the full Senate vote on DeVos has yet to be set, but Republicans hold 52 seats, compared to just 48 for Democrats. If Collins and Murkowski decide to vote against DeVos, Democrats would still need to pick up an additional GOP “no” vote on DeVos to defeat her nomination, since Vice President Mike Pence holds the tiebreaking vote.

After the committee meeting ended, Alexander told us he was confident the full Senate would approve DeVos. The date of that Senate vote has not yet been set.

The committee had the option of reporting DeVos’ nomination favorably or unfavorably to the full Senate, or to not refer her at all, which would have killed DeVos’ nomination. There was some uncertainty about whether Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch’s initial vote by proxy to back DeVos was in line with the committee rules. But ultimately a second round of voting produced the same 12-to-11 result. Democrats argued in favor of a re-vote, but argued that there needed proper notice and therefore should be delayed.

Murkowski and Collins were two GOP targets of anti-DeVos forces, and received thousands of calls and emails asking them not to support DeVos. Both represent relatively rural states where school choice doesn’t play a particularly big role.

Collins, whose view of DeVos was the subject of much speculation before the hearing, voted to report her nomination favorably out of committee because, “I still believe that that is the right approach for cabinet members.”

But Collins also said she was concerned about DeVos’ interest in serving public school students and administrators, as well as the nominee’s “apparent lack of familiarity” with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And Collins also said she was uncertain DeVos understood that as education secretary it would be her job to “strengthen our public schools.”

Meanwhile, Murkowski said that while it’s clear DeVos “cares deeply for kids,” she added, “I have to acknowledge the Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Betsy DeVos with me.” Murkowski added that she shared their concerns about DeVos’ lack of experience.

“She must prove she will work to help the struggling public schools that strive to educate our children,” Murkowski said.

The remarks before the vote got testy at several points. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, the committee chairman, said DeVos was already the “most-questioned” education secretary nominee in history, but that Democrats had demonstrated bad faith when Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said all Democrats would vote against her before all of their questions about DeVos were answered. Franken later denied he had said this.

“We disagree about process. We disagree about the nominee,” Alexander said.

He said he disagreed as much with previous Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. as Democrats appeared to disagree with DeVos, but that DeVos deserved her chance to serve, and had already said she would faithfully implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Her ability to do that, he said, would not be impacted by her status as an outsider and advocate for school choice, which Alexander praised.

“Does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from the education establishment to be education secretary?” Alexander said.

But Patty Murray, D-Wash., ran through a host of concerns about DeVos. She said DeVos’ personal investments still remain a source of concerns. She said DeVos’ comments about public school funding, not ruling out changes to Title I aid for disadvantaged students, special education law, and guns in schools were disturbing.
“I am not convinced that Betsy DeVos will put students first if she is confirmed,” Murray said.

And Murray said the committee was ignoring recent precedents in what was asked and expected of education secretary nominees.

“There are very good reasons why she has become so controversial, why she has been panned across the country,” Murray said, referring to newspaper articles and late-night TV shows that criticized her. " The usual practices are being ignored. The right thing to do is being ignored here.”

The original committee vote had been scheduled for Jan. 24, but was delayed for a week in order to give senators time to review the nominee’s ethics and financial disclosures, according to Alexander.

Big Differences of Opinion

Members of both parties noted their offices had been bombarded with calls about DeVos.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who introduced DeVos at her confirmation hearing, said there were “high levels of confusion” among teachers about who she was. The focus, he said, should be on children trapped in failing schools. And Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the Democrats’ treatment of DeVos “character assassination” given her background trying to help children and get power out of Washington where it doesn’t belong: “We want to hold her to a different standard than we hold every member of Congress to. It’s wrong.”

But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., argued that DeVos had displayed “a really disturbing lack of knowledge about basic education law and policy” or had ducked questions to which the answers seemed obvious to him. He also said DeVos had not committed to continue the U.S. Department of Education’s collection of civil rights data—that seemed to contradict DeVos’ written statement to Murray that she would.

“It seems to make clear that Ms. DeVos is going to dramatically scale back protections for poor and vulnerable children” or at least not pay as much attention to them as she should, Murphy said.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said DeVos’ political preferences “drained valuable taxpayer dollars” out of public schools, and that her “privatization theories” were bad for students.

“It is hard to imagine a candidate less qualified or more dangerous” to lead the department, Warren said.

Before the committee vote, Murray introduced an amendment to require all cabinet nominees before the committee to release their tax returns, but the amendment was defeated. The Washington Post also reported Tuesday ahead of the vote that several of DeVos’ written answers to questions from Murray used almost exactly the same language as other sources, but that DeVos did not cite those sources. Murray alluded to this in her comments before the vote.

Divisive Debate About DeVos

DeVos is the former head of the American Federation for Children, which supports vouchers and other forms of school choice. She has backed choice programs around the country but especially in Michigan for several years. She and her family are also prominent GOP donors—between her and her husband’s personal, direct donations and through the family’s political action committee, the DeVos family gave campaign donations to 10 Republicans on the committee.

Compared to past nominees, DeVos has proven to be a controversial one. Democrats, the two national teachers’ unions, and other left-leaning interest groups had kept up a steady drumbeat against DeVos before her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing.

But opposition to DeVos intensified after that hearing, in which DeVos said she may have been confused about whether there was a federal law governing students in special education. Her remarks about guns in school and her exchange with Franken about measuring proficiency versus growth also drew criticism. And she denied any role in a family foundation that donated to several organizations senators found suspect, despite a paper trail indicating the contrary.

Franken also announced that no Democrats planned to vote for DeVos, and were looking for Republicans to join them in opposing her—that effort may continue before the full Senate vote, although the odds appear against the Democrats. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has questioned Trump’s actions in other policy areas, announced Monday that he supported DeVos.

Senate committee Democrats also zeroed in on DeVos’ extensive financial holdings. They argued that her complex web of investments created a host of questions, many of which were not answered by her disclosures. And several committee Democrats also asked DeVos twice to disclose her links to various lobbying and campaign activities. They also pushed unsuccessfully for more time to question DeVos and a delay for the Tuesday vote.

However, her vocal GOP backers on the committee and her other supporters never publicly buckled. Alexander said last week Democrats’ decision to attack DeVos for backing vouchers was a “pretty awful reason” to hold up her nomination.

And Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a committee member who introduced her at her confirmation hearing, last week dismissed the idea that any committee Republicans would oppose her. He also called her confirmation hearing “solid” and said he was convinced she would be an advocate for all children, including those with special needs.

A host of state lawmakers, governors, and school choice advocates also lobbied aggressively on behalf of DeVos. They argued that she would be a strong advocate for parents and students, and was not beholden to what they saw as a traditional education system that often failed students.

DeVos greeted Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the education committee. before testifying on on Jan. 17. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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