Betsy DeVos confirmed as education secretary; Sen. Murray calls pick unqualified

Betsy DeVos confirmed as education secretary; Sen. Murray calls pick unqualified

Left, Murray file photo; Right, DeVos, AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, file photo

The Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary by the narrowest possible margin, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie after a last-ditch effort by Democrats to sink the nomination.

Watch part of the hearing from the closing speeches below. 

BREAKING: Senate confirms President Trump’s pick Betsy DeVos as education secretary after VP Mike Pence breaks 50-50 tie. Sen. Patty Murray said DeVos is unqualified. Democrats held the floor all night in opposition of Devos. >> kiro.tv/MurrayOnDeVos

Posted by KIRO 7 News on Tuesday, February 7, 2017
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Betsy DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor and longtime school choice advocate, has emerged as one of Trump's most controversial Cabinet picks. Labor unions have bitterly contested DeVos' nomination, fearing that she will destroy public education by promoting charter schools and publicly funded voucher programs for private schools. Civil rights activists also fear she will do little to advocate for LGBT students and children with special needs.

Trump stood behind his nominee, accusing Democrats of fighting progress and change.

"Senate Dems protest to keep the failed status quo," Trump tweeted Tuesday before the vote. "Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!"

Two GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have announced plans to oppose DeVos in a Senate split 52-48 between Republicans and Democrats.  That will leave her with a tie vote if all other Republicans support her and all Democrats oppose her as expected, and will require Pence to put her over the top. A vice president breaking a tie on a Cabinet nomination would be a first in the history of the Senate, according to the Senate historian's office.

After an all-night speaking marathon by Democrats, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee urged her Republican colleagues to vote against DeVos, calling her unqualified and saying that she will be a poor advocate for low income families and students with disabilities.

"We are just within one vote of sending this nomination back and asking the president to send us a nominee that can be supported by members on both sides of the aisle, that can set a vision that can fight for public schools, that can be that champion," Murray said.

In a statement, Sen. Murray vowed to not give up the fight.

"We may not have won this fight today, but people across the country have stood up and made their voices heard on the importance of strong public education in America, and we are not going to stand down," she said in part. "I plan to keep up the fight by their side to hold Betsy DeVos accountable and push her to do the right thing for parents and students."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said DeVos will seek to empower states, not federal bureaucrats, to make important education decisions.

"I know that she is committed to improving our education system so that every child — every child — has a brighter future," McConnell said ahead of the vote.

Emotions ran high ahead of the vote as constituents jammed senators' phone lines with calls and protesters gathered outside the Capitol, including one person in a grizzly bear costume to ridicule DeVos' comment during her confirmation hearing that some schools might want guns to protect against grizzlies. Her opponents also charge that DeVos has no experience to run public schools, having never attended one or sent her children to a public school.

"I am not just voting no, I am voting no way," Democratic Senator Chris Coons Delaware said on the Senate floor.

But Republicans accused Democrats of slow-walking DeVos and other qualified nominees to placate liberal base voters who still haven't come to terms with Trump's election.

Republicans complain that previous presidents have been able to put their Cabinets in place more quickly.

Democrats say it's Trump's fault because many of his nominees have complicated financial arrangements and ethical entanglements they claim they have not had enough time to dissect. Thus far, six Cabinet and high-level officials have been confirmed, including the secretaries of state, defense, homeland security and transportation.