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Which GOP Senators Could Reject DeVos? Look to Rural, Anti-Voucher Republicans

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 01, 2017 3 min read
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Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary is headed to the full Senate for a vote. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the chamber by 52 to 48, so on a party line vote DeVos should be safe. But where could anti-DeVos forces pick up a crucial third vote against the nominee and overcome the tiebreaker vote held by Vice President Mike Pence? They could look to senators who’ve expressed skepticism about a crucial education policy priority for DeVos: school choice.

We know that two GOP lawmakers on the Senate education committee, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they’re concerned about DeVos and haven’t committed to voting for her in the full Senate.

First, let’s assume all 48 Democrats vote against DeVos. Let’s also assume, solely for the sake of argument, that Collins and Murkowski ultimately vote against DeVos. (They very well may not.) That makes it 50-50. So one more vote against DeVos eliminates Pence as a tiebreaker vote and dooms DeVos’ nomination. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has been confirmed by the Senate judiciary committee to be attorney general, but he hasn’t been confirmed by the full Senate. So as of now, he can still vote on DeVos.

One possible place to look for that third GOP vote against DeVos is the vote tally from the Scholarships for Kids Act in July 2015.

That proposal, proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would have redirected $24 billion in federal funding for education into $2,100 scholarships for 11 million low-income students to use at the school of their choice. Alexander called it “a real answer to inequality in America.” The proposal failed, with 52 senators voting against and 45 in favor.

Collins and Murkowski helped defeat the measure. Here are the other Republican lawmakers who voted against the Scholarships for Kids Act and are still in the Senate:

  • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia
  • Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska
  • Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada
  • Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas

DeVos is a prominent school choice advocate who favors vouchers. And those four senators have shown they’re not particularly big fans of vouchers, at least at the federal level. UPDATED: A spokeswoman for Capito informed us Wednesday that the senator plans to vote in favor of DeVos, saying that the nominee “has devoted herself to improving education in her home state of Michigan and across the country.” And Emily Wilkins of Congressional Quarterly reported Wednesday that Moran will vote to confirm DeVos.

All four of those senators also represent states with significant rural interests to consider. As we’ve written before, school choice doesn’t necessarily play well in rural areas because of logistical and other barriers. And Heller is up for re-election in 2018, and could face a tough contest.

We’ve reached out to all four of those senators’ offices for comment, and we’ll update this blog post if we hear back.

None of this is to say that any of the four senators we’ve listed above are likely to vote against DeVos. GOP party discipline may prove far more important than any other factor. Those four senators decide that DeVos may be great on other education issues. And Republican senators may also be wary about the ripple effect of voting against a nominee who comes from the community of GOP mega-donors. Finally, remember that Trump won all four of those states except Nevada.

There’s also this to consider: Both Capito and Heller have received money from the Alticor political action committee, which the DeVos family controls. (Murkowski herself has received money from Betsy DeVos directly, although that didn’t stop her from expressing serious reservations about the nominee on Tuesday.)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who’s expressed concerns about President Donald Trump in other policy areas, has gotten money from the DeVos family directly. And another senator who’s done likewise, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has already said he’d vote for DeVos.