DeVos nomination proves controversial

Betsy DeVos’s nomination to become Education secretary has become a flashpoint among President Trump's Cabinet picks.

DeVos wasn’t initially expected to be one of Trump’s more controversial picks, but her nomination has been a lightning rod for criticism from both sides of the aisle as well as public school advocates, teachers unions and disability rights groups. 

Despite the opposition, DeVos will likely still win confirmation — but just barely. The final vote on the Senate floor will be held early next week, with the vote currently standing at 50-50, with Vice President Pence casting the tie-breaking vote. No other GOP senator has indicated they’ll oppose her nomination.

DeVos’s nomination has rankled Democrats, who have framed her as an opponent of public schools. The billionaire GOP donor has been a vocal supporter of charter schools and school choice, which gives parents an alternative by opting for a charter or private school. 

Conflicts of interest have also been a flashpoint in DeVos’s nomination. Democrats pre-empted her hearing by pointing to her former political action committee’s unpaid election fines and campaign contributions to GOP senators sitting on the committee tasked with considering her.

But it was DeVos’s confirmation hearing that raised questions about her experience and stance on education policy, grabbing national headlines and drawing attention on social media.

Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenGillibrand says she doesn't regret calling for Franken to resign Al Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions MORE’s (D-Minn.) notable exchange with DeVos exposed a shaky response on a contentious debate within education policy circles.

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When she appeared not to know the difference between proficiency and growth in terms of students’ test scores and measuring success, the Minnesota Democrat slammed her: “It surprises me you don’t know this issue.”

Disability rights groups sounded the alarm over her answer about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that requires public schools to provide “free and appropriate” education to students with disabilities. 

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin Health care moves to center stage in Democratic primary fight Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress MORE (D-Va.) asked DeVos whether any schools that receive federal funding should abide by the requirements of IDEA, DeVos answered that it’s a matter “best left to the states.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) later revisited the topic and asked whether DeVos knew that IDEA is a federal law. DeVos responded, “I may have confused it."

Following the hearing, the American Association of People with Disabilities wrote a blog post saying the group is “very concerned” about her apparent unfamiliarity with the issue and hopes that she will enforce the law if she becomes Education secretary.

After the hearing, DeVos wrote a letter to Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonGeorgia senator discharged from hospital after fall Georgia senator hospitalized after fall Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown MORE (R-Ga.), who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee seeking to smooth over her initial response to IDEA and saying she’s “eager to bring a sense of urgency” to enforce the federal law.

Another topic that raised red flags was a question over sexual assault on college campuses.

When Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border Democrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions MORE (D-Pa.) asked if she’d uphold the 2011 guidance on Title IX, DeVos said it’d be “premature” for her to answer. End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX, groups advocating against sexual violence, have teamed up to urge her to protect Title IX. 

“If Ms. DeVos revokes the department’s critical work, she would make it harder for students to learn their rights — and easier for schools to violate them,” said Know Your IX

When asked if she considers the leaked 2005 audiotape revealing Trump bragging about groping and kissing women to be sexual assault, DeVos simply replied, “Yes.”

Most Republicans, including Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderFinding a path forward to end surprise medical billing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care MORE (R-Tenn.), have pushed back on Democrats’ characterization of DeVos and argue that she has been subjected to the most questions of any nominee for the job.

“My goal from the beginning was a fair and thorough process, and to try to treat President Trump’s nominee for Education secretary about the same way we treated President Obama's two nominees for Education secretary,” Alexander said at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“Based on my research, she’s the most questioned Education secretary in the history of the Senate.” 

DeVos’s support started to erode earlier this week when GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey Epstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse MORE (Alaska) indicated they were still undecided about the final Senate floor vote.

In a surprising development, both announced on Wednesday that they would ultimately oppose DeVos’s nomination.

“I didn't have the confidence that I needed to provide my support for Mrs. DeVos,” Murkowski told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in a Thursday interview.

Murkowski said she based her decision in part on the avalanche of constituent calls made to her office. She has also voiced concerns over DeVos’s strong involvement in promoting charter schools, saying she has “much to learn” about public education.

Collins echoed a similar sentiment about DeVos’s “apparent lack of familiarity” of IDEA and her emphasis on school vouchers.

No Democrats are supporting her nomination, including Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (D-W.Va.), who has backed other controversial Cabinet picks and is known for bucking his own party. 

Republicans can’t afford any more defections, but most other senators in the party say they’ll support DeVos. 

At Wednesday’s briefing, the White House expressed “100 percent confidence” that DeVos would be confirmed, which was echoed by Friends of Betsy DeVos, a group aligned with her.

“She'll be confirmed,” spokesman Ed Patru told The Hill. “[Democrats] know increased accountability and educational choice improves outcomes, and they'd rather keep entire communities in generational poverty than give up control. That's what this debate over Betsy DeVos is about.” 

Still, liberal groups feel emboldened by the recent shift in support and are applying pressure on more senators to oppose her, an effort that will run through the weekend until the final vote on either Monday or Tuesday.