Senate Confirms DeVos, After Activists Force Historic Tie-Breaker

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The Trump administration was forced to dispatch the Vice President to the Senate on Tuesday afternoon to see its Education Secretary nominee confirmed.

Mike Pence appeared on Capitol Hill to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Betsy DeVos. The 51-50 vote marked the first time in United States history that a cabinet member relied on the support of the Vice President to get Congressional approval.

The tight margin came after activists flooded legislative offices with appeals, calling on senators to reject DeVos.

Trump’s top pick to lead the Department of Education had been panned by critics for being unable to answer simple questions about federal education law, during her January confirmation hearing. DeVos had also said guns in schools were needed to protect children and staff from “grizzlies” in a clip that was widely mocked on social media.

“A whole lot of people were introduced to Betsy DeVos for the first time at that hearing, and they were not impressed,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said late Tuesday morning.

Opponents bemoaned the fact that DeVos’ main education policy experience consists of aggressively pushing “school choice” and fundamentalist Christian policy initiatives on the behalf of wealthy donors, including herself. DeVos, like President Trump, is a billionaire who was born into immense amounts of wealth. She is the daughter of late industrialist Edgar Prince.

“There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education,” she once said in 2001. “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

Critics say DeVos and her Congressional allies will push to relax standards on federal funding for private and religious schools, at the expense of public schools and general education quality. They also say that her ethics disclosures are incomplete and have been misleading.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had announced they would join all 48 members of the Democratic Caucus who were voting against the nominee.

“Her concentration on charter schools and vouchers,” Collins said, “raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the Secretary of Education’s primary focus must be on helping…strengthen our public schools.”

The Maine Republican additionally referenced the nominee’s calamitous confirmation hearing, noting she was “troubled and surprised by Mrs. DeVos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

In the 24-hours before Pence cast the deciding vote, Democrats held the senate floor, to lambaste DeVos in floor speeches. Her confirmation had been expected, but they were nonetheless urging one more Republican to cast a “no” vote.

“Over the past two weeks, we have seen an unprecedented level of engagement from people on this nomination,” Sen. Murray said, just before the vote. She noted senators had received “tens of thousands of calls” in opposition to DeVos.

“It’s the first time in history that the Vice President will be called on shortly to cast a tie-breaking vote on a cabinet nominee,” Murray added. “We just need one more Republican to prevent that from happening.”

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Since 2010, Sam Knight's work has appeared in Truthout, Washington Monthly, Salon, Mondoweiss, Alternet, In These Times, The Reykjavik Grapevine and The Nation. In 2012, he worked as a producer for The Alyona Show on RT. He has written extensively about political movements that emerged in Iceland after the 2008 financial collapse, and is currently working on a book about the subject.