DeVos vote looms as Dems raise concerns

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The top Democrat on the Senate education committee wants to postpone Tuesday’s planned committee vote on the nomination of Michigan’s Betsy DeVos for education secretary, saying Democrats still have “critical” questions about DeVos’ complex finances.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, urged Chairman Lamar Alexander to delay the vote a second time, after he pushed back the vote a week from Jan. 24.

Murray’s request follows a weekend of protests in DeVos’ hometown of Holland and elsewhere over her selection to head the U.S. Department of Education. Some demonstrations were organized by public school teachers, whose unions have opposed DeVos.

The White House accused Democrats of obstructing President Donald Trump’s nominees, with 17 still awaiting confirmation by the Senate.

“It’s all about politics. It’s not about qualifications. The president has a right to have his nominees taken up,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday.

Spicer highlighted that Republicans last year won the presidency, unexpectedly kept control of the Senate and maintained a comfortable GOP edge in the House.

“If you’re a Senate Democrat, you’ve got to wonder if you’re getting outside of Washington enough,” he said.

A spokesman for Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said the committee’s vote would take place at 10 a.m. Tuesday as scheduled, noting DeVos on Monday submitted answers to more than 800 written questions posed by committee Democrats.

“After an initial review of the responses sent to committee members with less than 24 hours before the scheduled vote, staff has identified a number of critical questions about Ms. DeVos’ financial disclosure to the committee and other areas that have not been answered to anywhere close to satisfaction,” Murray spokeswoman Eli Zupnik said.

“Sen. Murray does not believe that members of the committee have enough information about Ms. DeVos’ opaque finances, conflicts of interest and other issues — and she once again urges Chairman Alexander to postpone this vote until all reasonable questions are answered fully and appropriately.”

DeVos’ financial issues

Alexander last week rejected a formal request from committee Democrats for a second hearing to question the west Michigan businesswoman about her complex financial holdings after DeVos, a 59-year-old billionaire from the Grand Rapids area, finalized her financial disclosure statement and signed an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics. Her ethics agreement says she intends to divest within 90 days from 102 companies and holdings that pose potential conflicts of interest.

Democrats were not satisfied last week, sending two separate letters urging further disclosures. One letter, signed by six senators including Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, raised concerns about holdings in which DeVos will retain an interest.

“You have disclosed financial connections to a debt collector and for-profit colleges that depend on the Department of Education for their revenue,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Given the fact that you will continue to hold positions in family trusts that are not transparent in their holdings, we ask for additional information to allay concerns that both the investments you will soon divest of, and your family’s trusts that you will continue to hold, will not create conflicts for you as Secretary of Education.”

Ed Patru, spokesman for a group of DeVos allies, said DeVos has met the disclosure requirements established by law, and that the Office of Government Ethics has affirmed she has no conflicts.

“Like most Americans, we think it would set a grave and dangerous precedent to begin substituting OGE’s independent, non-partisan findings with the personal opinions of partisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which is what Sen. Warren’s letter is suggesting,” Patru said by email.

Teachers unions in particular oppose DeVos’ nomination, arguing she would undermine the public school system to promote charter, private and other education options.

DeVos has said she supports all options for student education, including traditional public schools. Supporters hail her as a reformer who would shake up the education status quo.

“Democrats desperately are searching for a valid reason to oppose Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary because they don’t want Americans to know the real reason for their opposition,” Alexander, himself a former education secretary, wrote in a Medium post.

“That real reason? She has spent more than three decades helping children from low-income families choose a better school. Specifically, Democrats resent her support for allowing tax dollars to follow children to school their low-income parents choose, although wealthy families choose their children’s schools every day.”

Democrats criticized her performance at a hearing this month where DeVos stumbled in response to some questions. One covered the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law requiring public schools to provide “free appropriate” public education to children with disabilities. Several advocacy groups for people with disabilities have since spoken against DeVos.

Political donation questions

At the hearing, Democrats asked about the millions of dollars in political donations that DeVos and her family have contributed over the years, mostly to Republicans. An analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found more than $82 million in donations from the family since the beginning of 1999, including $58 million in Michigan.

The analysis examined filings on the federal level, as well as reports in Michigan and a dozen other states, highlighting $200,000 that Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, donated to the Republican State Leadership Committee in Texas on Dec. 13 — 20 days after her nomination as education secretary.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, has asked DeVos to disclose her contributions to so-called “dark money” groups that aren’t required to report their donors. DeVos has refused but testified that, if confirmed, she and her husband would end their political giving.

DeVos supporters include Ohio Gov. John Kasich and 18 other GOP governors, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who argue that she would return more control to states and to local school boards. Michigan’s nine Republican congressmen also signed a letter urging her confirmation.

Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat on the education committee, says no Democrats will vote to confirm DeVos.

“We’re trying to find Republicans who will vote against her because she’s an ideologue who knows next to nothing about education policy as we demonstrated, or she demonstrated really, in her confirmation hearing,” Franken said last week on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.

Both of Michigan’s Democratic U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, intend to vote against DeVos.

No GOP senators have said they will oppose DeVos. Her family has directly contributed to 23 of the 52 Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including six Republicans on the Senate education committee, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

After Tuesday’s committee vote, a simple majority of the Senate is needed to confirm her.

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