Democrats remained in control of the U.S. Senate floor Tuesday as they staged a 24-hour protest against President Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, in what has become a battle of competing visions for publicly-funded education in America.
Two Republicans have joined a united Democratic caucus in opposition to DeVos, a wealthy businesswoman who has never served as a teacher but is a leading proponent of forcing public schools to compete with private ones for resources by allowing families to use public funding vouchers to send their children to the school of their choice.
A split 50-50 Senate vote on DeVos is expected Tuesday. If that happens, Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm DeVos — a development that would be unprecedented for a presidential Cabinet nomination.
"Democrats will hold the floor for the next 24 hours, until the final vote, to do everything we can to persuade just one more Republican to join us," announced Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state at the start of the extended talk-a-thon on the Senate floor.
The Democrats' quest is complicated, as dozens of Republican senators are on record supporting DeVos, and none are likely to change their minds based on pressure — however long-winded — from the opposing political party.
For instance, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican courted by Democrats to vote against DeVos, issued a statement last week praising the nominee for working to ensure "that poor children trapped in failing schools have the same opportunities that wealthy and middle-class kids already have."
But where Republicans see a pioneering champion for competition and free-market incentives in education, Democrats see the leader of a plot to siphon off already-scarce public funds and hollow out America's public education system, which currently serves roughly nine of every 10 students in the country.
"The response to a troubled [public] school should not be to walk away from it in favor of sketchy voucher schemes," said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. "Instead, we must work together to provide the necessary resources and interventions to help those schools and those students achieve success."
Voters weigh in
Capitol switchboards have been swamped by phone calls from voters across the country attempting to reach their senators and voice either opposition or support for DeVos. Van Hollen said his office has received 14,000 calls from Maryland, a relatively small state, on the education nominee. The majority have been against DeVos, according to the senator.
The 24-hour floor action is the latest attempt by Democrats to slow or derail Trump’s Cabinet picks. Republicans can confirm them all, with or without Democratic support, so long as they remain united behind the nominees.
Last week, Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska announced their opposition to DeVos — the first crack in what has been unified Republican backing for the president's Cabinet choices.