Senators flooded with calls, letters ahead of Betsy DeVos vote

Early Friday morning, the Senate set the stage for the final vote on Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos’ nomination to lead the Department of Education, voting 52 to 48 to cut off debate. Meanwhile, constituents strained congressional switchboards and overloaded senators’ inboxes to share their opinions on the controversial nominee.

Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate had been flooded with an average of 1.5 million calls each day this week. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted that the call volume broke all previous Senate records. A staffer for Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told a reporter that he received 80,000 letters from constituents about DeVos’ confirmation alone. The senator’s total correspondence was up 900 percent compared to the year before, he said.

Republican senators are likely under even more pressure, though they have been less eager than their Democratic colleagues to tout the numbers. Teachers unions and activists led the charge against DeVos, but the opposition quickly became grassroots. Many of DeVos’ detractors object to her support for vouchers for students to attend private schools, including religious institutions, which some education experts believe would drain resources from public schools. Others dislike that DeVos has neither worked in nor attended a public school, nor sent her children to public schools. The unusual flood of calls, emails and letters reflect the amount of emotion and anger surrounding President Trump’s pick.

“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,” said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association teachers union.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The campaign has yielded results. Two Republican senators, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, defected from the caucus earlier this week, in a surprising repudiation of the White House. Murkowski said she had heard from “thousands” of Alaskans who opposed the nominee. She further told Yahoo News that she couldn’t live in fear of the president’s Twitter attacks.

Activists then turned their sights on Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., who are both up for reelection in 2018 in states that trended more blue in 2016. Both men have said they will vote for DeVos, but constituents kept calling anyway. Heller tweeted Thursday that constituents were having trouble getting through to his office line.

With those two Republican defections, DeVos’ confirmation vote is now split 50-50. That means that Vice President Mike Pence will have to come to the Senate floor to break the tie. (Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has been abstaining from nomination votes as he’s under consideration for attorney general, will also have to come to the floor to vote.) If Pence is called in, it would 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.

Even if Democrats and advocates are unable to peel off another Republican vote and DeVos is confirmed, they will have made their displeasure known enough to have to haul the vice president down to the Senate floor in order to push her through.

The besieged senators will vote early Friday morning on whether to proceed to a floor vote on DeVos’ nomination. This will likely pass, and then Democrats have 30 hours to debate on the floor until the full vote.

DeVos had a rough confirmation hearing last month, despite the efforts of the education committee chair, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to keep her questioning to a minimum. DeVos appeared unfamiliar with a basic education policy debate over proficiency standards and suggested that the federal government shouldn’t impose gun-free zones on schools because of the possibility of grizzly bears. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., implied that DeVos was only nominated because of her history of donating millions to Republican causes and candidates, drawing a later rebuke from Collins. DeVos said she had dedicated much of her adult life to pushing for education reform as an activist and philanthropist, and that she had mentored students in schools.

Updated: 12 p.m. ET with the Senate vote to cut off debate.

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