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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Former Rep. Joseph McDade Dies
3 hours ago

Former Rep. Joseph McDade, an 18-term Republican congressman who was known for bringing federal dollars home to his northeastern Pennsylvania district and who was acquitted in 1996 on a bribery charge," died Sunday. He served in the House from 1963-99 and was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

CBO: “Millions” Would Lose Coverage Under Graham-Cassidy
5 hours ago

"The Congressional Budget Office projected Monday that the last-ditch GOP ObamaCare repeal bill would result in 'millions' of people losing coverage. The agency did not give a specific number given a lack of time to do the analysis before a vote." CBO also said the bill would reduce deficits by $133 billion over ten years.

Susan Collins a “No” on Graham-Cassidy
5 hours ago
Supreme Court Removes Travel Ban Case from Calendar
8 hours ago

"The Supreme Court on Monday dropped the dispute over President Trump's travel ban from its oral argument calendar. The high court directed attorneys for both sides to submit 10-page briefs on whether they view the case as moot by noon on Oct. 5. Both sides must address whether the expirationof Trump's travel ban order on Sunday rendered the case moot and whether the new order from the president renders the existing litigation moot."

Graham-Cassidy Hearing Recesses
9 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.