The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education by the slimmest of margins, capping off a rocky, high-stakes fight for President Trump's pick.
Vice President Pence cast the deciding vote on DeVos, breaking a 50-50 tie after Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsOvernight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Schumer: Senate Russia probe moving too slowly Collins: I'm not working with Freedom Caucus chairman on healthcare MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling MORE (Alaska) became the first Republican senators to oppose a Trump Cabinet pick, joining all Democrats.
Pence is the first vice president ever to cast a decisive vote on a Cabinet nominee. The last time a vice president broke a tie in the Senate was 2008, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney voted on tax legislation.
Pence arrived at the Capitol around approximately 11:30 a.m. but waited in the wings until the vote was tied at 50-50 to take over the presiding chair and cast his vote.
The vice president, a former lawmaker, chatted with GOP senators on the floor after the vote and shook hands with Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzGOP super PAC pours millions into Ga. special election Cruz: 'Schumer and the Democrats want a shutdown' Kansas Republican sworn in after special election MORE (R-Texas).
Pence was expected to meet with Senate Republicans during their closed-door weekly policy lunch on Tuesday afternoon.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer later defended Pence making history by breaking a tie on a Cabinet nominee, calling the vote "another glaring reminder of the unprecedented obstruction Senate Democrats have engaged in throughout this process.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerCruz: 'Schumer and the Democrats want a shutdown' GOP fundraiser enters crowded primary for Pa. Senate seat Dems: Trump risks government shutdown over border wall MORE (D-N.Y.) made a failed eleventh-hour plea Tuesday morning for a third Republican to buck the party and sink DeVos's nomination.
“It’s the Republican side demanding a vote for an unqualified candidate,” the Senate’s top Democrat said. “I hope against hope that another Republican will have the courage ... [to] join us.”
Schumer suggested Republicans are privately saying they wish Trump picked someone else, calling DeVos a “negative trifecta.”
They painted Trump’s pick as a threat to public education.
“A vote for Ms. DeVos is a vote to destroy the public school system,” Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallDem vows to fight Trump 'every step of the way' on national monuments Senate Dems want Trump to release ethics waivers, visitor logs Dem senator: Congress should force White House to publish visitor logs MORE (D-N.M.) said from the Senate floor.
Sen. Al FrankenAl FrankenSenate votes to confirm Rosenstein as deputy attorney general Twitter jumps on news of O'Reilly's ouster Senate Dems seek review of products linked to tax refunds MORE (D-Minn.) added that DeVos is “fundamentally incompetent,” saying her hearing was "one of the most embarrassing scenes" he’s seen since joining the Senate.
"I believe it may have been one the most embarrassing performances by a nominee in the history of the United States Senate," he said. "We would not accept a secretary of Defense who couldn't name the branches of the military.”
DeVos, a GOP mega-donor long active on education issues, has been the subject of fierce opposition from teachers unions and other liberal groups opposed to her support for charter schools and tuition vouchers that use public funds.
And her rocky performance during a confirmation hearing was panned by both sides. At one point, she advocated for guns in school because of the possibility of a grizzly bear attack, at least in Wyoming.
But Republicans and the White House remained publicly steadfast in their support of DeVos despite a wall of opposition. They argue Democrats are obstructing Trump’s nominees because they remain bitter about Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Whip List: Who to watch on GOP's new ObamaCare bill The US should give peace a chance when it comes to North Korea Obama photographer gets book deal MORE losing the 2016 presidential race.
“We’re no longer in the midst of a contentious presidential election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP leaders, top tax writers: Trump principles will be 'critical guideposts' Trump proposes sweeping tax reform McConnell warns Dems: No 'poison pills' in funding measure MORE (R-Ky.) said. “We have a new president, and that president has put forth … a number of well-qualified Cabinet nominees.”
He added that DeVos will return power to state and local governments because she understands they are "best suited to make education decisions for our kids.”
“This is a sad day for children,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said in a statement following the vote on Tuesday.
“If she wants to work with the educators who work hard every single day—in districts as diverse as McDowell County, W.Va., Detroit, and Scarsdale, N.Y.—to provide children the opportunities they deserve, we renew our invitation to have her visit America’s public schools and see the strategies that work for kids,” Weingarten said.
“But it’s more likely we’ll now hear the same trashing of public schools that the disrupters, the privatizers and the austerity hawks have used for the last two decades.”
Senate Republicans are threatening to keep the Senate in through the weekend as they try to confirm additional Cabinet nominees.
Republicans, pointing to data from the Senate Historical Office, note that the pace for confirming Trump’s picks is the slowest since George Washington. President Obama, by comparison, got seven nominees confirmed on his first day in 2009.
Senators will take up Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination to be attorney general on Wednesday. The move ensured the Alabama Republican was able to help bring DeVos across the finish line before leaving the Senate to take his new post.
After Sessions, lawmakers will turn to Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s picks to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and Treasury Department, respectively.
Democrats face an uphill battle to block any of Trump’s nominees, who only need a simple majority to clear the upper chamber. Republicans hold 52 seats, and no GOP senator has officially come out in opposition to any other Trump pick.
Schumer, however, dismissed GOP criticism, arguing Democrats had an obligation to speak out against nominees they believe are unqualified.
“We Democrats are very proud of what we have done here,” he said. “The nominee is so unqualified and the American people now know it.”
--Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 2:34 p.m.