It’s going to be a long night for Senate Democrats.
Responding to a growing number of Americans upset at Trump’s pick for education secretary, Democrats are holding the Senate floor throughout the night and into the morning, as they try to convince one more Republican to switch their vote. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a shockingly close confirmation vote for Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos.
Already two Republican senators have bucked President Trump and their party to say they’ll vote against DeVos. The defections – the first for a Trump nominee – come as Senate offices are deluged with calls, emails and visits, overwhelmingly in opposition to DeVos.
While the fight to stop DeVos has been led by unions and progressive groups, the effort has been bolstered by a wave of grassroots activism. This comes at a time when millions are responding to Trump’s presidency by taking to the streets, airports and town halls (where one Republican congressman fled early via a side door, and another had police escort him away from constituents shouting “This is what Democracy looks like.”)
This mass uprising is the sum of countless individual acts.
After school Friday and again today, a small group of public school teachers made their way to the Senate. Armed with letters from teachers, parents and others from across the country, the group circumvented the jammed phone lines by personally delivering the messages.
“This is the advantage of being a local teacher,” said Elizabeth Chipkin, a special education teacher at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland. “[We can] represent other teachers from around the country.”
“When it comes to American education, teachers voices aren’t heard,” Shayna Tivona, a pre-K D.C. public school teacher, said as she walked the Senate hallways. “Essentially everyone thinks they know more than teachers.”
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania received the most letters from the group: 42 on Friday and another seven Monday.
This type of grassroots activism is bubbling up elsewhere. Outside Toomey’s Philadelphia office on Monday, teachers rallied and delivered letters and thousands signatures from Pennsylvanians who are calling on the senator to withdraw his support for DeVos.
Toomey, like many senators voting on DeVos’ confirmation, has received donations from the nominee. To counter this, a Philadelphia artist started a crowdfunding campaign to “buy” Toomey’s vote. “I thought I would raise $30,” Katherine Fritz told The Philadelphia Inquirer. She’s now raised $70,000, which she says she’ll donate to charity.
Down to the Wire
If Toomey or any other Republican senator flips, DeVos’ nomination is almost certain to fail.
Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 52-48 margin. With the two Republican defections, and all Democrats saying they’ll vote against DeVos, the vote looks to be 50-50.
It’s so close that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back the vote to confirm Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general to ensure Sessions will still be in the senate to vote for DeVos.
In the case of a tie, Vice President Mike Pence will cast the deciding vote, putting DeVos over the edge. This would mark the first time a vice president has cast a deciding vote for a cabinet nominee. If DeVos is voted down, it would be just the second time a cabinet pick of a first-term president has failed to be confirmed.
In the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, DeVos’ nomination narrowly passed 12-11 in a party-line vote. The two Republican defections, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, both sit on this committee and voted in favor of moving the nomination forward, but said they would vote against DeVos before the full Senate.
“Either one of them could have put an end to [DeVos’] candidacy in committee, and they didn’t. These are not profiles in courage," wrote author and education historian Diane Ravitch, who opposes DeVos’ nomination. “She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education,” says Ravitch.
Church and State
DeVos and her family have spent millions in a long campaign to steer public money away from public schools and into charters and private schools, with a focus on religious institutions.
She used to be more open about this.
"There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education… Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's kingdom,” DeVos said in 2001, Mother Jones reported.
In a speech that same year, DeVos said Christians would experience “greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country,” Politico reported.
“The church—which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school,” said her husband, Dick DeVos.
A foundation named for DeVos’ parents and run by her mother, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, has donated at least $5 million to the anti-gay group Focus on the Family.
When asked about this at her confirmation hearing, DeVos claimed she had no involvement with the foundation despite being listed in tax filings for 17 consecutive years as an officer of the organization, something she called a “clerical error.”
Breaking with past precedent, the Republican committee chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, shut down questioning of the nominee after senators had just one five-minute round each. Citing this, as well as DeVos’ spotty record and incomplete conflict of interest filings, Democrats requested a second hearing, which Alexander refused.
Subsequently the Washington Post reported that some of DeVos’ written responses appear to have been plagiarized from an Obama appointee.
In a joint op-ed for The Hill on Monday, Norman Eisen and Richard Painter called on senators to reject DeVos’ nomination:
As former ethics counsels to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, we’ve reviewed more than our share of ethics filings for cabinet nominees. Seldom have we seen a worse cabinet-level ethics mess than that presented by Betsy DeVos.
"Betsy DeVos’ nomination is not about making public education more effective, or helping publicly schooled children succeed,” the New York Times wrote. “It’s about blowing up the system without a clue as to what comes next."
“Make no mistake: A vote to confirm Betsy DeVos… is a vote to end public education in this country as we know it,” read an editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which has a front row seat to DeVos’ education reform efforts throughout Michigan.
This isn't conspiracy theory, or ideologically driven slander. Look at DeVos' own words and actions, over her long career advocating against traditional public schools; her funding of an ideologically driven pro-charter lobby; her willingness to spend whatever it takes to ensure her policy preferences become law.
Despite DeVos’ extreme views and unfamiliarity with public education, her nomination may still be approved—by senators who received contributions from her family.
“I have decided... to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” DeVos has said of her family’s massive political contributions over the years. “Now, I simply concede the point.”
“Do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family [had] not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party, that you’d be sitting here today?” Senator Bernie Sanders asked DeVos at her confirmation hearing.
Clips of that hearing lit up social media, as DeVos demonstrated a poor grasp of the public education system she seeks to lead.
Still she pushes on, backed by not one, but two billionaire families from Western Michigan. One she married into: the DeVoses, whose billions come from Amway, a company that was accused but not convicted of being a pyramid scheme, and pleaded guilty to defrauding the Canadian government. The other she was born into: the Princes, who got rich off an auto-parts company. (DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, founded the notorious mercenary group Blackwater, and is now advising Trump.)
Outside the Capitol Monday, teachers and senators rallied. "We know that Betsy DeVos stands for the corporate interests who want to privatize public education," said George Cassutto, an eighth grade civics teacher and National Education Association representative. “We call on the U.S. Senate to turn this nomination down."