President Donald Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos to be education secretary was sent this morning to the full U.S. Senate for confirmation on a tight 12-11 party line vote in committee after a fractious debate over her qualifications.
The vote on the nomination of DeVos, a controversial figure in Michigan politics and education, raised hackles among Democrats in the Senate, who argued throughout a contentious hearing two weeks ago and today's debate that she knows too little about federal education policy and would undermine public schools.
Republicans, in the majority in both the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the full Senate, defended her as being committed to children even if she has been a key supporter of school choice and vouchers -- though two GOP members signaled that their votes in the committee today did not necessarily guarantee support on the Senate floor.
A vote for final confirmation in the Senate has not yet been scheduled. Immediately following the vote, Democrats moved to overturn the vote because a proxy vote in favor was made for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was not in the committee room. A vote to overturn the vote was rejected after Hatch showed up in the committee room to effectively confirm the vote.
As debate on her nomination got underway, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the committee, said the vote would occur over Democratic objections and complaints that her nomination had been rushed through. Alexander said she has answered dozens of times more questions -- some 1,400 sent her by Democrats -- and spent more time before the committee than any other recent nominee for education secretary.
“I don’t think it’s fair to treat Ms. DeVos any differently than we did (former) President Obama's secretaries," said Alexander. "The objection is she supports charter schools. … The objection is she supports school choice.”
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., however, said that her and other Democrats' opposition to DeVos is not about school choice or charter schools that she supported in Michigan but their belief that she has worked to drain funding from public schools to the benefit of private and for-profit schools. Warren said there has never been an education secretary nominee "less qualified or more dangerous" than DeVos.
DeVos has been widely criticized for her lack of institutional experience and a confirmation hearing in which it appeared she was initially unfamiliar with some federal policies like those regarding protections for disabled students.
“Her hearing was so lacking in any knowledge at all about policy in public education,” said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. DeVos' supporters argued that not only has she since answered most if not all of those questions, that she has proven her commitment to children.
That support wasn't unqualified.
A key Republican moderate on the committee -- U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine -- signaled that she would vote for the nomination in committee, saying "Presidents are entitled to considerable deference in terms of Cabinet members regardless of which party is in power," but she did not guarantee her vote in the full Senate, adding that she still wants to look into DeVos' commitment to enforce laws protecting disabled students and other policies.
Collins added, however, that she was also comforted to hear from DeVos that as the head of an agency that helps oversee education policy, she would not push any effort to force the states to adopt school vouchers or choice.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, another key member, said she also has deep-seated concerns about DeVos due to questions about her support of public schools and policies for disabled students and others, saying DeVos still "must prove she will work to help the struggling public schools that strive to educate our children."
Still, Murkowski said she would give President Donald Trump deference in voting his nominee out of committee while not making such commitment to how she would vote when the nomination comes before the full Senate.
"I would advise she not yet count on my vote," said Murkowski. Her and Collins' doubts could spell problems for DeVos' nomination once it reaches the Senate: A confirmation vote had not yet been scheduled.
Other Republicans pushed back on her behalf.
"Let's give her a little bit of credit. She lives in a state where she saw somebody needed to take action and she tried," said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., referring to DeVos' long -- and often controversial -- backing of school choice and vouchers in Michigan, where she is a two-time chair of the state Republican Party and a significant financial backer of conservative policies, groups and politicians.
In arguing against DeVos' nomination, Democrats said they still have deep concerns about DeVos' financial entanglements, despite her reaching an agreement suitable to the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics to divest herself of more than 100 investments. DeVos is married to Amway heir and former head Dick DeVos and both will apparently cease funding Republican politicians and efforts if she is confirmed as expected.
"This nominee is different and there are very good reasons why she has become so controversial," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "This nominee is being jammed through with corners being cut." She also said that Democrats haven't been given time to ask follow-up questions and that some of her responses may be inadequate.
Murray and other Democrats said that DeVos' experience in Michigan has not been nearly enough to support her taking over the agency and criticized her for not coming out firmly against prohibiting guns in schools or insisting for more accountability from charter schools or those receiving vouchers. "I have not been persuaded that Betsy DeVos will put students first if she is confirmed," said Murray.
As to those who complained that DeVos' experience is too far out of the mainstream, Alexander said, "Does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from inside the education establishment?"