Support for President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, crumbled Wednesday, as two Republican senators announced that they would not vote to confirm her, citing thousands of angry calls from their constituents. The White House and Senate leadership insist that DeVos, a Republican megadonor who backs school vouchers, will be confirmed despite the defections.
The surprising announcements from Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine came after both of their offices were flooded with phone calls and emails from constituents who opposed DeVos. Murkowski said she had heard from “thousands” of Alaskans.
The confirmation vote is now split 50-50, which means that Vice President Mike Pence would have to come to the Senate floor to break the tie. If Pence is called in, it will be the first time in Senate history that a vice president has had to cast the tie-breaking vote for a president’s Cabinet nominee, a sign of the controversy that DeVos’ nomination has stirred up.
Democrats are hoping that angry constituents can persuade at least one more Republican senator to defect, killing DeVos’ nomination altogether. A Senate Democratic aide said that Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, both up for reelection in 2018, are the likeliest to change their minds on DeVos. (A majority of Nevadans voted for Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.) Flake and Heller said Wednesday that they plan to vote for DeVos, however.
“I believe Betsy DeVos is the right choice for this position,” Heller said, according to Politico.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Buzzfeed on Wednesday that DeVos would be confirmed and that “you can take that to the bank.” And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also projected certainty, telling reporters he was “100 percent confident” she would be confirmed.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said that 1 million people had used its online tool to email senators to oppose DeVos, and that at least 50,000 people had made phone calls since her rocky confirmation hearing. DeVos demonstrated a shaky grasp of some education policy issues during her relatively brief hearing. Democratic senators criticized her for never having worked in a school, and for not sending her own children to public schools. DeVos cited her work as an advocate for education reform and as a mentor in schools.
Mary Kusler, the union’s director of government relations, said that much of the outpouring of opposition to DeVos was spontaneous, and that she hoped it would continue to be so, as advocates try to change the vote of one more senator. “Obviously, we’re going to engage our members, just like we’ve been doing, but what we really see is that this has really touched a nerve in the hearts and minds of not just educators but parents, grandparents and community members,” she said.