The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as secretary of education on Tuesday, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.
It was the first time in the nation’s history that a Cabinet secretary’s confirmation required a vice president’s tiebreaking vote to succeed.
The vote, which took place shortly after noon, put 50 Republican senators at odds with two of their party colleagues, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. They joined all 48 senators who caucus with the Democrats in opposing DeVos’ confirmation.
That left the vote tied at 50-50 before Pence cast the tie-breaking vote.
Democrats debated overnight on the floor of the Senate in a futile attempt to sway one more Republican vote to oppose DeVos’ confirmation, without success. DeVos, a billionaire school choice advocate whose family donated millions to Republicans, had been one of the most controversial among President Donald Trump’s already contentious slate of Cabinet nominees, with opponents citing her lack of experience working in public education and rocky confirmation hearing last month.
In a fiery speech moments before the vote, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary himself, criticized his Democratic colleagues for opposing DeVos, accusing them of opposing her because she was appointed by a Republican president.
Alexander, chairman of the committee that approved DeVos’ nomination last week in a straight, party-line split, said she had been “at the forefront” of education reform for decades.
“She led the most effective public school reform movement over the last few years,” he said.
Lacking the votes to block DeVos, Democrats realized there was little they could do. Having exhausted every legislative option to slow consideration of her nomination, Democrats held vigil in the final 24 hours before her confirmation vote, coming to the Senate floor throughout the night and into the morning to reiterate their objections.
And though they spoke mostly to a chamber empty but for a handful of clerks, pages and other staff members, Democrats pressed their absent Republican colleagues to join them, hoping for an eleventh-hour defection that would derail DeVos’ nomination.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee that approved DeVos – and a former educator herself – on Tuesday morning urged disheartened colleagues and advocates not to think of their efforts as a waste.
“It’s made an impact here and made a difference,” she said. “And I think it’s woken each of us up in this country to what we value and what we want.”
All of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointees that have had a Senate confirmation vote so far have been confirmed, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was confirmed on a 56-43 vote. At least two more votes, including that for attorney general, are expected later this week.
The New York Times contributed to this story.