The scheduled vote Tuesday to confirm billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos as Education secretary comes after one of the most acrimonious public standoffs in recent memory.
On Monday night, Democratic senators refused to yield their allotted floor time, vowing to spend every last hour before the vote protesting DeVos’s fitness for the role. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, told CNN that it was still possible to convince another Republican colleague to vote against Trump’s beleaguered nominee, which would sink her confirmation.
Two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced last week that they will break with their party and vote against DeVos. Their decision leaves the vote at a 50-50 count, which will require Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote. Pence told hosts on Fox News Sunday that it would be his “high honor” to confirm DeVos Tuesday.
Just after 10:30 p.m. Monday, Democratic senators, cheered on by supporters on Twitter wielding hashtags like #NoDeVos and #DumpDeVos, held the floor. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, denounced the DeVos family’s long history of giving to Republican political campaigns and conservative action funds.
“We are leaving a black hole of secrecy around this enormous conflict of interest potential,” he warned.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told colleagues Monday night that Republicans would not be cowed by the Democrats’ act of rebellion. The session, he said, would not end until Democrats yielded for a vote on several of Trump’s nominees, including Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia as the head of Department of Health and Human Services, as well as DeVos as Education Secretary.
Over the past two weeks, DeVos’s confirmation has been at the center of a pitched public campaign, with members of the public flooding senators’ offices with tens of thousands of phone calls and organizing protests to raise questions about DeVos’s competency for the role as federal chief of schools.
Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania saw the number of calls, emails, and letters to his office increase 900% between this year and last year, an aide told TIME. Roughly 25% of those calls were regarding DeVos and, of those, 90% opposed her confirmation. Last week, calls opposing Trump’s nominees, including DeVos, reportedly overwhelmed the Congressional phone system, leaving some Senate offices briefly without access to voice mail.
The controversy over DeVos’s appointment has pitted Republican Party loyalists and some figures from the educational establishment, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, against a wide-ranging army of opponents. Supporters include prominent voices in the education world, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Eva Moskowitz, the founder of a sometimes controversial charter school network in New York City.
Critics include the national teachers’ unions, parent advocacy groups, disability rights organizations, and a raft of out-spoken celebrities like filmmaker Michael Moore, actresses Amy Schumer and Olivia Wilde and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
Democratic Senators, all of whom will vote against DeVos’s confirmation, explained their opposition to constituents in part on the grounds that DeVos, despite spending years as a philanthropist in the education world, has no experience as either a teacher or a student in public schools. She once called the American public education system a “dead end.” DeVos, as well as all of her children, attended private Christian academies.
Eli Broad, a prominent educational philanthropist and advocate of nonprofit charter schools, who has often sided with Republican lawmakers, wrote a letter February 1 to Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asking them not to confirm Trump’s nominee. Broad wrote that DeVos’s performance during her confirmation hearing January 17, during which she appeared to be unaware of basic educational policy issues, was cause for significant concern.
DeVos’s hearing, which Politico called “cringe-worthy,” earned mockery from comedians as well. Daily Show host Trevor Noah made hay out of her assertion that guns should be allowed in schools to protect children against “potential grizzlies.” And this week on Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon skewered DeVos’ apparent lack of awareness about a long-standing debate over how best to measure students’ progress in school.