Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote Tuesday for President Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary ― the first time a vice president’s tie-breaking vote has been used for a Cabinet confirmation.
Betsy DeVos garnered a 50-50 tie from senators, with the 46 Democrats and two independents of the chamber plus two Republicans voting against her. The vote came after Democrats held the Senate floor for 24 hours straight, in hopes of pressuring another Republican to join their side.
DeVos has weathered a particularly controversial confirmation hearing. Her nomination inspired intense backlash from parents and teachers on both sides of the political aisle. After Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) announced last week that they would be voting against DeVos, other Republican senators faced a barrage of calls from constituents urging them to similarly flip. Protests sprung up around the nation, also taking issue with DeVos’ seeming lack of qualifications for the job.
Still, with the exception of Murkowski and Collins, Republicans toed the party line, creating the type of political gridlock that is rare for votes on Cabinet secretary confirmations.
DeVos ― who comes from a billionaire Michigan family ― inspired opposition from teachers unions and public education advocates after her nomination was first announced in November. However, after she had what many saw as a lackluster and embarrassing performance at her confirmation hearing, the calls of those opposing her grew louder. DeVos was mocked for her comment that schools might need guns to ward off grizzly bear attacks and for her seeming lack of familiarity with mainstream education concepts and laws.
In the past week, senators were slammed with calls from constituents, many with opinions about DeVos. The progressive network CREDO Action received over 1.4 million signatures on a petition opposing DeVos ― the most a petition from the organization has ever received.
Supporters of DeVos say teachers unions ― from whom DeVos is on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum ― drove opposition to her confirmation. But even teachers union leaders say the extent of opposition to DeVos surprised them.
Throughout the confirmation process, DeVos maintained the support of influential Republican leaders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She even garnered a few endorsements from high-profile Democratic education leaders. But Democrats point to the fact that some of DeVos’ support may have been bought ― her family has donated copious amounts to members of Congress. Given that teachers unions also donate to politicians, her supporters say this argument is hypocritical.
DeVos has spent decades as an education activist, mostly pushing policies that benefit charter schools and voucher programs ― which allow kids to attend private schools using taxpayer funds. DeVos and her supporters say she is willing to shake up the status quo to give kids increased choice over where they go to school. Alexander, one of DeVos’ most ardent supporters, emphasized this point when speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
Alexander said she has been at the forefront of the “most important public school reform in the last 30 years” with public charter schools and that she has “worked tirelessly to give low income children more of the same choices wealthy children have.”
Still, her detractors say her preferred policies amount to a dismantling of the traditional public education system.
“Over the past few weeks, people have learned about Betsy DeVos’ tangled finances and potential conflicts of interest. How she and her family have given hundreds of millions of dollars to Republicans and extreme conservative groups. They have learned about her failed record,” Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “How she has spent her career and her inherited fortune pushing anti-public-school policies that have hurt so many students in her home state of Michigan and across the country.”
DeVos did not attend public schools, send her children to public schools or ever formally work in public schools. As a devout Christian, she has inspired fear that she will try to push religion in schools. But even some of her critics concede that she appears to care deeply about children.
As opposed to other Trump nominees, DeVos became an especially high-profile lightning rod for backlash, with celebrities chiming in to oppose her nomination on social media.
After the vote, groups decried her confirmation.
“Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement. “Today’s outcome marks only the beginning of the resistance. Students, educators, parents, civil rights and special education advocates ― along with millions of Americans ― are speaking loud and clear: we are here to stay ... we will protect public education.”
DeVos thanked the Senate via Twitter after the vote.
This post has been updated with reaction from education groups and a tweet from DeVos.