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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