WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Tuesday narrowly voted in favor of President Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, sending her nomination to the full Senate for final approval.
All 12 Republicans on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted in favor of sending her nomination to the Senate floor, while all 11 Democrats voted against. Democrats immediately challenged the vote, arguing that since one of the Republicans — Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah — voted by proxy, his vote doesn't count under committee rules, and the outcome was really a 11-11 tie.
Republicans refuted that point and then revoted with Hatch present — over the objections of Democrats, who said another vote could not happen without official notice. Again, the vote was 12-11.
Two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), made clear that they have not yet decided how they will vote on the floor, suggesting that DeVos's confirmation is not yet assured. Democrats are seeking to block DeVos's confirmation, but they must convince a handful of Republicans to break with the new president.
DeVos is a Michigan billionaire and private school voucher advocate who has become one of Trump's most controversial Cabinet picks.
The GOP majority has defended DeVos as a bold reformer who is willing to shrink the federal imprint on education and upend the status quo in the interest of expanding opportunities for disadvantaged children.
But Democrats have fiercely opposed DeVos, arguing that she is wholly unqualified for the job. They say that she favors policies that undermine the public schools that serve most U.S. children and that she has not adequately answered questions about potential conflicts of interest related to her investments.
The DeVos nomination has driven a partisan wedge into a committee that has managed to find bipartisan compromise on key issues, including sweeping education legislation in 2015.
"This is a committee of considerable differences of opinion. But it's also a committee that has on big occasions been able to resolve those differences of opinion, usually in a cordial way. I'm sorry to say that we are not able to do that this time," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), the committee chairman. "We're at the point where we have to express those disagreements with a vote."
Alexander decided to hold Tuesday's vote over objections from Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the committee's ranking Democrat, who sought a delay to ask more questions of DeVos. Alexander, who served as education secretary under George H.W. Bush, argued that DeVos — who fielded more than 1,000 written questions from Democrats — is already "the most questioned education secretary in the history of the senate."
Murray countered that DeVos had failed to answer critical questions about her finances, and said she was disappointed in Alexander, calling his decision to go ahead with the vote a "massive break" with the committee's strong bipartisan record.
"It will dramatically impact our ability to work together in good faith going forward," she said. "The usual practices are being ignored here . . . This nominee is being jammed through with corners being cut and with the minority being brushed aside, and I think that's wrong."
Dozens of observers filled the committee's meeting room on Capitol Hill, from teenagers in khakis to school board members in suits, in town for a National School Boards Association gathering.
Tim Stillings, the chairman of the board of Tennessee's Franklin Special School District, said he was deeply concerned about Trump's pick for education secretary.
"My concerns are her inexperience and lack of understanding of public education and her support for charter, for-profit schools," said Stillings.
DeVos has been a powerful force in pushing to expand charter schools in her home state and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools nationwide. But she has no professional experience in public education. During her confirmation hearing this month, she stumbled over basic policy questions, at one point saying that states should be allowed to decide whether to follow a four-decade-old federal civil rights law that protects students with disabilities.
Also during the Jan. 17 hearing, DeVos left open the possibility that she might seek to cut education funding or support privatizing public schools. She passed up a chance to reassure senators who are concerned that she intends to scale back the Education Department's efforts to enforce civil rights laws in schools. And she rejected a ban on guns in schools, saying that some schools might need firearms to defend against "potential grizzlies" — a line that became fodder for late-night comics.
Some Democrats and their traditional allies — including teachers unions and civil rights groups — have criticized DeVos as unacceptable since she was nominated in late November. But her hearing performance unleashed a broad new wave of opposition, carried along in part by the Women's March on Washington and other anti-Trump resistance efforts.
Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker, urged marchers to call their senators to oppose DeVos. Anti-DeVos petitions circulated widely online, with one, organized by Credo Action, amassing 1.4 million signatures.
Senate offices have been swamped with anti-DeVos phone calls and emails. The National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union, alone accounted for more than 1 million emails and 40,000 phone calls.
Teachers and parents also have organized protests to oppose DeVos on Capitol Hill and in places, such as Portland, Oregon; Nashville, Tennessee; and Holland, Michigan, DeVos's home town. More than 250 civil rights groups, including those devoted to disability rights, signed a letter of opposition.
DeVos's supporters accuse Democrats of bowing to union bosses and defending a status quo that too often consigns poor, African American and Hispanic children to the worst schools.