North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr was one of many Senate Republicans whose offices were flooded with callers and emailers urging him to be the 51st vote against Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos. (He was also one of many Senate Republicans who received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the DeVos family.) Shortly after DeVos was confirmed on Tuesday following a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, I asked Burr if he had ever entertained the idea of voting against DeVos.
Did he think anyone else in his caucus came close to casting the 51st vote against her?
Did Sens. Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski try to persuade anyone else in the caucus to join them in voting down DeVos?
After the lively conversation, Sen. Burr headed into his caucus lunch room.
I also asked Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, walking at seemingly 20 to 30 mph past reporters on his way to the lunch room, whether he ever reconsidered his support. Hill Democrats had seen Toomey as one of best their targets for flipping. Toomey, also a recipient of tens of thousands of dollars in DeVos cash, was the subject of a cheeky GoFundMe effort to outbid the DeVoses and purchase Toomey’s vote. Toomey’s offices had been overwhelmed with calls, emails, and snail mail, too. He never budged in his support.
“I was very clear from the time she was announced that I was enthusiastically supporting her,” he said.
Was DeVos’ nomination ever truly threatened over the past week after Collins and Murkowski took to the Senate floor? Or was this coordinated all along by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: freeing Murkowski and Collins to vote the way they wanted, and then shutting the door?
McConnell’s relaxed body language—and mere presence—on the Senate floor during DeVos’ vote suggested the latter. If there had to be any last-minute arm-twisting with, say, a senator representing a large state concerned about rural public school funding, McConnell would have been off the floor, or in the cloak room, performing said arm-twisting. He was not. He was not engaged in heated conversations. The vote went all according to script. Republican senators whom activists had hoped there might an outside chance of flipping—Heller? Hoeven? McCain?—strolled over to the clerk and pointed up to register their yes votes, one after another. Pence assumed the chair, broke the tie, and that was that.
When I asked Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic minority whip, if he ever felt there had been a realistic shot at getting that 51st nay, he didn’t answer directly. “Well, I can tell you, when I went home and started counting the phone calls, I’ve never seen this kind of outpouring of opposition to a nomination ever.” What specific senators, though, was he hoping to turn?
“Oh, I think that was pretty obvious.” If it was the ones we’d heard about—senators such as Pat Toomey—then those must have been short conversations.
Shortly before DeVos’ vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office sent out a list of stats measuring the effort to block DeVos. The number of hours for which Democrats had held the floor consistently to protest (“29 and counting”), the number of contacts to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s office in opposition to DeVos (“Over 100,000”), the total number of calls to Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s office, out of 3,000, that were supportive of DeVos (12), and so on.
But did Schumer ever think there was really a chance to bag that 51st no vote—and to what end did all this activism serve?
“I thought we had some chance,” Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “We realized even if we didn’t, to make the point that Secretary DeVos is so anti–public education was an important point to make. … And we have an obligation, obviously, to try and overturn some of these nominees who are among the worst Cabinet I have ever seen nominated.”
Some people who took time out of their day to call, write, or protest, or who pledged money to a comical effort to buy senators’ votes, will be disappointed that their efforts didn’t make any difference in the final tally. Schumer’s argument is that the great drama surrounding DeVos’ nomination, and the spectacle of the vice president having to cast the tie-breaking vote on a Cabinet appointee for the first time in history, effectively serves to put DeVos on notice.
“Once we set the table—that Secretary-nominee DeVos is against public education—it will serve to put a magnifying glass on her when she makes a decision,” he said. “So that’s important, too.”
DeVos was confirmed, just as Jeff Sessions will be confirmed, just as Scott Pruitt will be confirmed, just as Tom Price will be confirmed, just as Steve Mnuchin will be confirmed, and on down the line. (What’s going on with Labor nominee Andy Puzder, who still hasn’t received a hearing, is anyone’s guess.) But there’s a reason to fight President Trump’s nominations even if they can’t be derailed. More dissent means more critical stories in the press, means sharper-elbowed hearings, means defensive guarantees made to mollify wobbly senators, means a brighter spotlight on the secretaries once they’re in office. The resistance to Trump is in part about boxing in the people charged with enacting his will. The less latitude the Cabinet can enjoy, the weaker the Trump administration is.
Senate Democrats made the pivot from DeVos quickly. At his Tuesday afternoon press conferences, Schumer typically appears with his fellow members of the Senate Democratic leadership: Sens. Durbin, Patty Murray, and Debbie Stabenow. The group he brought on Tuesday—Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Mazie Hirono—are all members of the judiciary committee, and the press conference was devoted to the fight ahead over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. And as we speak, Senate Democrats are just beginning their latest talk-a-thon against the next nominee in line, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
On to the next one.