What Democrats Learned From the DeVos Vote

After barely missing the chance to take down a Cabinet nomination, can Democrats break through?

Environmental Protection Agency chemist Wayne Whipple speaks to a crowd gathered in Chicago on Monday to protest the nomination of Scott Pruitt for administrator of the agency.
AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Feb. 7, 2017, 8 p.m.

Hav­ing pushed Betsy De­Vos’s Edu­ca­tion sec­ret­ary nom­in­a­tion to the brink, Sen­ate Demo­crats are look­ing to see if they can rep­lic­ate their play­book against oth­er nom­in­ees.

With votes com­ing up this week on at­tor­ney gen­er­al pick Jeff Ses­sions, Treas­ury nom­in­ee Steven Mnuchin, and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices pick Tom Price, Demo­crats will once again flood the zone with speeches and delay tac­tics to rally op­pos­i­tion. And after a flurry of con­stitu­ent phone calls brought at­ten­tion to De­Vos across the Sen­ate, Demo­crats say they could use state-by-state pres­sure to push some mod­er­ates on nom­in­ees like Scott Pruitt, Pres­id­ent Trump’s pick to lead the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency.

Al­though Demo­crats were un­suc­cess­ful in stop­ping De­Vos, they forced Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence to cast an un­pre­ced­en­ted tie-break­ing vote and cast a glar­ing spot­light on De­Vos’s views on pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow said that Demo­crats were also heartened that they had pushed the nom­in­a­tion pro­cess in­to Feb­ru­ary.

“The dif­fer­ence was an op­por­tun­ity to see De­Vos and oth­ers and learn about them, and in the case of De­Vos to or­gan­ize and gal­van­ize,” said Stabenow. “We know we don’t have the votes on our own to stop these nom­in­ees. We do have the ca­pa­city to give time so that cit­izens can par­ti­cip­ate and ex­press them­selves.”

Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer on Tues­day prom­ised “long de­bates,” but didn’t say wheth­er he’d force the Sen­ate to keep run­ning the full 30-hour clock. But Re­pub­lic­ans have countered that the slow walk is set­ting back the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“The Demo­crats are clearly sore losers, and they re­fuse to listen to the Amer­ic­an people, who on Elec­tion Day said, ‘We’re sick and tired of the delays that we’ve been hav­ing in Wash­ing­ton,’” Sen. John Bar­rasso told re­port­ers.

The odds are against flip­ping three Re­pub­lic­ans to beat any nom­in­ee, or even gin­ning up the same level of op­pos­i­tion.

The cam­paign against De­Vos was ac­cel­er­ated after Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski an­nounced op­pos­i­tion, sud­denly put­ting a de­feat in­to play. There are few signs that there are enough swing votes to block any of the nom­in­ees set to reach the floor.

Sev­er­al Demo­crats said there was one clear les­son from the past week: Con­stitu­ents mat­ter. Murkowski said she had “heard from thou­sands, truly thou­sands, of Alaskans,” and Collins told re­port­ers that there was “an out­pour­ing” of re­sponse, but cla­ri­fied that it was both for and against De­Vos.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Thomas Carp­er said that was a les­son that could be ap­plied to Pruitt’s nom­in­a­tion, which could reach the floor next week.

“I know Re­pub­lic­ans are un­der a lot of pres­sure from their lead­er­ship, the ad­min­is­tra­tion, and I’m sure their fun­ders to toe the party line,” Carp­er said. “But I was just re­minded of how im­port­ant it is that they hear from real people in their state, people that they know, people that they trust.”

Much as ad­voc­ates tried to paint De­Vos as un­qual­i­fied to lead the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment be­cause of her lack of ex­pos­ure to pub­lic schools, Demo­crats and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have been try­ing to paint Pruitt as fun­da­ment­ally op­posed to the EPA’s ba­sic mis­sion of en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion. Pruitt has sued the agency 14 times and has prom­ised to roll back fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions, al­though he has said he would not cur­tail en­vir­on­ment­al en­force­ment.

Pruitt also faces ques­tions about un­re­leased emails and doc­u­ments from his ten­ure as Ok­lahoma at­tor­ney gen­er­al; a law­suit filed Tues­day charges that Pruitt has vi­ol­ated the state’s Open Re­cords Act by not re­leas­ing emails re­lated to his deal­ings with fossil-fuel groups.

That re­cord has ad­voc­ates op­tim­ist­ic that they could turn some mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Collins, who has said she is con­cerned about Pruitt’s law­suits against the agency (she told re­port­ers Tues­day she had not de­cided on the nom­in­a­tion). En­vir­on­ment­al­ists are also look­ing at some West­ern Re­pub­lic­ans, such as Sens. Jeff Flake or John Mc­Cain, to vote against Pruitt, but must con­tend with the pos­sib­il­ity that mod­er­ate Demo­crats such as Sen. Joe Manchin will vote for him.

As with De­Vos, act­iv­ists have geared up ad­vocacy cam­paigns. More than 400 former EPA of­fi­cials sent a let­ter Monday say­ing Pruitt “does not agree with the un­der­ly­ing prin­ciples of our en­vir­on­ment­al laws,” and hun­dreds of cur­rent and former em­ploy­ees ral­lied against the pick in Chica­go. Groups like the Si­erra Club and Moms Clean Air Force have pushed cit­izens to call Con­gress about the pick.

A Demo­crat­ic aide said that they were also hop­ing to ap­ply state-by-state pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­ans when Mnuchin comes up for a vote, es­pe­cially over wheth­er he lied about his bank’s prac­tice of “robo-sign­ing.” The Colum­bus Dis­patch re­por­ted last month that Mnuchin’s OneW­est Bank had signed mort­gage doc­u­ments in bulk in Ohio without re­view­ing them, al­though Mnuchin said it hadn’t. Sub­sequent stor­ies have shown the prac­tice used in Maine and oth­er states, giv­ing loc­al fla­vor to the story that could mo­tiv­ate re­sponses.

Stabenow told re­port­ers that she was fo­cused on Price, and that the length of the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess had “fo­cused people’s at­ten­tions” in her state about how he might treat Medi­care and Medi­caid.

Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn summed up Demo­crats’ low odds Tues­day by say­ing, “They know how this story ends. They know we’re go­ing to be suc­cess­ful.” But Schu­mer said that the minor­ity could take small vic­tor­ies even in slow­ing down the votes.

Demo­crats, Schu­mer said, have an ob­lig­a­tion “to show the Amer­ic­an people who these nom­in­ees are be­cause they’re go­ing to have enorm­ous power over the Amer­ic­an people. Once we set the table, such as, ‘De­Vos is against pub­lic edu­ca­tion,’ it will serve to put a mag­ni­fy­ing glass on her when she makes de­cisions.”

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