Showdown Looms on DeVos Nomination as Others Remain on Hold

By Nancy Ognanovich

Senate Republican leaders’ push to get all of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees confirmed soon will be put to its biggest test Feb. 7 when lawmakers decide whether to confirm Betsy DeVos to serve as Education secretary.

With even some Republicans opposing the embattled nominee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may enlist Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote to get DeVos over the finish line. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are under heavy pressure to oppose the nominee, whose advocacy of using federal resources to support private schools has set off a firestorm of criticism among education groups.

The outcome of the DeVos vote is seen as critical to McConnell’s plan to take up the nominations of other key Trump Cabinet nominees and confirm some of them by week’s end. Waiting in the wings are the nominations of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to serve as attorney general, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be secretary of Health and Human Services and Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary.

The Senate is preparing to vote Feb. 7 on whether to invoke cloture on the nomination of Sessions and then engage in a full debate on his credentials and policies during the next few days. But that vote and debate are not expected to start until DeVos is confirmed, as McConnell is counting on Sessions’s vote to get her approved.

While Democrats have given their support to get a half-dozen of Trump’s top nominees confirmed, McConnell blamed the minority for causing Trump to have far fewer actual Cabinet officials in place than other presidents had a little more than two weeks into their term.

“By this same point into their terms, other recent presidents from both sides of the aisle had more than twice as many Cabinet officials confirmed as President Trump does now,” McConnell said on the floor. “President Obama had 12 officials confirmed at this point in his term. President George W. Bush had all 14 Cabinet nominees confirmed at this point. President Clinton had 13. President Trump has a mere four.”

Sessions Vote Pending

Democrats joined Republicans early on and helped confirm Trump’s picks for Defense, Homeland Security, State and Transportation as well as the nominees for the Central Intelligence Agency and United Nations.

McConnell now is engaged in a full-court press to get as many others confirmed as possible before the Senate departs Feb. 17 for the 10-day Presidents Day recess. Still to be considered in the spring will be Trump’s picks to serve as deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries at the various agencies.

Most of the other Cabinet picks now have been approved in committee, even though Democrats sought to slow some of them down in order to have more time to examine their credentials and ensure they submitted ethics agreements before they advanced.

Besides the picks for Education, Justice, HHS and Treasury, McConnell now has the nominees for the following agencies ready for floor action: Commerce, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

But the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee still hasn’t reported the nomination of David Shulkin to be VA secretary, and neither the Agriculture Committee nor the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has held hearings on the nominations of Sonny Perdue for Agriculture and Andrew Puzder for Labor.

Only one high-profile nominee so far has dropped out: Vincent Viola, Trump’s pick to serve as Army secretary. Viola announced recently he would withdraw amid difficulties separating himself from his business holdings.

McConnell’s top priority now is to get Sessions confirmed as attorney general. Democrats promised that debate to be contentious, criticizing Sessions’s conservative views on immigration and involvement in Trump’s recent executive order affecting refugees as well as his record on voting rights and other issues. The minority is expected to use all of the post-cloture debate time allowed to it.

However, both Democratic and Republican leaders acknowledged that the rules changes Democrats previously forced through make it unlikely that they can block the Sessions nomination or those of Price and Mnuchin.

"[T]hanks to former Democratic Leader Harry Reid [Nev.], the Democrats know they cannot block these nominees from taking office,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy. “Because of the so-called nuclear option, they reduced the voting threshold from 60 to 51, meaning that with 52 Republicans and hopefully a little help from some of our friends across the aisle, every single one of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees will be confirmed. We can take that to the bank.”

Controversy Over DeVos

The Senate planned to be in session throughout the evening and into the morning hours to debate the DeVos nomination. A vote on whether to confirm her is expected midday.

Democrats, however, made clear they won’t produce the votes McConnell needs to make up for the loss of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said they can’t vote for DeVos, a billionaire who advocates for an “education industry” that will direct more resources to private schools.

Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a Democrat who even voted for Trump’s controversial pick of Rex Tillerson to serve at State, said he can’t support a nominee who hasn’t attended or worked in public schools and hasn’t any real knowledge of the student loan debt problem facing young people. He said the voucher program DeVos advocates will simply siphon off limited resources from already strained public schools.

Manchin said DeVos won’t champion the public schools that rural areas depend on and her policies “would divert public funds to private schools whether it was intentional or not.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it is rare that members of the president’s party vote against his nominees but said, in the case of DeVos, Republicans should work to stop the nominee. The adequacy of their states’ schools is at risk, he said, particularly if they represent large rural areas.

“There is not a lot of choice of schools outside the major metropolitan areas,” Schumer said. “If you don’t have a good public school, you have nothing. Any senator from a rural state should be worried about her commitment to public education.”

Schumer said lawmakers have been flooded with calls and e-mails in opposition to the DeVos nomination. Local newspaper editorial boards, many of which endorsed Trump, also have urged the Senate to reject the nominee, he said.

“In my mind, she is the least-qualified nominee in a historically unqualified Cabinet,” Schumer said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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