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US Senate approves DeVos as education secretary in narrow vote

President Trump's choice looked set to be defeated with a 50-50 stalemate. But then Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to cast the tie-breaking vote.

With a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, the US Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, on Tuesday. The Senate had voted 50-50 on the nomination of the controversial billionaire heiress, prompting Pence to cast the decisive vote.

Because the vice president also serves as the president of the Senate, Pence is allowed to vote in the cabinet confirmation process. The Senate historian said this marked the first time a vice president had to break a tie on a cabinet nomination.

Democrats had fought hard against DeVos' confirmation. After Pence cast his vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer - who had previously called DeVos "the least qualified nominee in an historically unqualified cabinet" - doubled down on his statement on Twitter. 

Two Republicans opposed DeVos

It had been a particular divisive cabinet pick. Teachers unions opposed DeVos' nomination because the former head of the Michigan Republican Party believes in "school choice". DeVos champions voucher programs that allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice - including privately-run, for-profit schools. Teachers advocates believe that this would hurt the funding of public schools. The 59-year old also garnered criticism from civil rights advocates for her conservative religious beliefs.

Two Republicans broke rank in order to oppose DeVos' confirmation, along with all 46 Senators from the Democratic Party and two Independents closely affiliated with the Democrats.

A champion for school choice

Democrats held the floor of the Senate for 24 hours ahead of the vote in an effort to halt DeVos' confirmation. They repeatedly criticized her lack of experience - the businesswoman has never worked in education - as well as the fact that DeVos has financial stakes in organizations promoting private schools. DeVos has promised to divest herself from these organizations.

During her confirmation hearing, the wealthy Republican donor at times stumbled, leading her opponents to argue that she was unfamiliar with key debates in education policy.

President Donald Trump stood by DeVos, describing her as a "reformer" and accusing Democrats of protesting to "keep the failed status quo". 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell argued in favor of DeVos ahead of the vote, saying that she would empower states to make important education decisions instead of federal bureaucrats. "I know that she is committed to improving our education system so that every child - every child - has a brighter future," McConell said. 

Not the only controversial pick

While many of Trump's cabinet picks have already been confirmed, Republicans are hoping to vote another batch of nominees into office this week: Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Representative Tom Price as health secretary and hedge fund manager Steve Mnuchion as treasury secretary. Sessions in particular has been deemed a controversial choice - in 1986, the US Senate denied him a federal judgeship because of controversial, racially charged statements former colleagues testified Sessions had made. 

mb/rt (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters) 

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