WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tie-breaking vote on Tuesday to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary despite solid Democratic opposition and the defection of two GOP senators.
Pence entered the Senate chamber after it deadlocked at 50-50, and cast the vote to break the tie and place DeVos at the head of the Department of Education.
President Donald Trump nominated the Michigan billionaire to head the department. Trump called DeVos a reformer who can bring about change because of her views on charter schools and voucher programs.
But her detractors said her lack of experience with public schools — she neither attended public schools nor sent her children to them — should disqualify her from leading a department that funds those schools in the states.
The Senate voted mostly along party lines to confirm DeVos, whose husband, Richard DeVos, is a co-founder of Amway, a multilevel marketing company.
Two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, voted against the nomination.
Collins said DeVos’ spotty performance at her nomination hearing, and near unanimous opposition by school superintendents, principals and teachers in her rural state, left her no option. “I felt I could not reach any conclusion but to vote against her on the floor.”
“Her experience, in my judgment, did not make her well-equipped for this position,” Collins told reporters.
With Republicans holding a slim 52-48 majority, the defection of Collins and Murkowski left a 50-50 tie. Pence then was called into the chamber to break the tie, the only time a vice president has been needed to confirm a presidential nominee, according to Senate records.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., voted with their party leaders.
Following the vote, Pence shook hands with several Republican senators, including Heller, before he left the Senate.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said she found it “incredulous” that the Senate considered DeVos for the post.
‘ELECTION WAS VERY TESTY’
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate committee on education, said he was taken aback at the tone of criticism for the nominee. He said DeVos was qualified to be secretary and said she would work with the Senate to implement reauthorization legislation for schools. He called the criticism a holdover from a heated presidential campaign.
“The election was very testy and that hasn’t gone away. So that still affects the water around here,” he said following the vote.
“I think she’ll get right to work and do a good job,” Alexander said.
DeVos has been the most contentious of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. The split vote came after a 24-hour talk-a-thon by Democrats who spoke on the Senate floor in opposition to DeVos, up until the noon vote.
The American Federation of Teachers opposed DeVos, charging that her confirmation could harm public schools if critical funding shifts to support vouchers or other school choice programs.
“It’s telling that even when Trump had full control of the legislative and executive branches, he could only get DeVos confirmed by an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by his vice president,” said Randi Weingarten, the AFT president. “That’s because DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools.”
Collins dismissed speculation that her vote was swayed by unions. She said the unions “have never been my supporters.”
Instead, Collins said she became concerned because of constituents who voiced alarm about the lack of knowledge of education policy that DeVos showed during her hearing in the Senate.
ADVOCATE FOR LOCAL CONTROL
But other Republicans rallied to her nomination. Heller said DeVos would bring back control of schools to state and local boards.
Alexander, a former education secretary, said DeVos has led “the most effective public school reform movement over the last few years.”
Following the vote, Pence conducted a swearing-in ceremony for DeVos. She is expected to address the Education Department on Thursday.
The contentious nature of the DeVos nomination began before her hearing with the Senate education panel, and when she completed an ethics form that detailed her wealth and association with school choice groups.
DeVos and her husband are ardent supporters and donors to Republican candidates and causes.
She has served as a board member for Advocates for School Choice, Alliance for School Choice, American Education Reform Council and the All Children Matter Political Action Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in government.
The DeVos confirmation is the seventh Cabinet-level position approved by the Senate.
The Senate also voted Tuesday to advance the nomination of another controversial Cabinet pick, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general.
Sessions was in the chamber and voted for DeVos earlier in the day.
Despite controversy over past positions on civil rights and voting rights, Sessions is expected to be confirmed this week.
Contact Gary Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.