The Slatest

Why It’s So Hard to Find That 51st Senate Vote Against Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos speaks during her confirmation hearing for secretary of education before the Senate HELP Committee on Capitol Hill on Jan. 17.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski announced that they would vote against Donald Trump’s extremely controversial pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. This rallied the left and put Democrats in a pretty exciting position: in need of just one more Republican vote against DeVos to bring her down. That vote, however, is proving very hard to wrangle.

As we speak, Senate Democrats are in the midst of a “talk-a-thon” against DeVos. They’ve held the Senate floor since it opened at noon and intend to hold it, with a few interruptions, until DeVos’ vote midday Tuesday. One Senate Democrat after another, going well into the night, will deliver a speech about why he or she thinks DeVos would make a rotten education secretary, in order to sway the one additional Republican senator they need to vote her down.

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But who would that senator be?

Constituents making their voices heard against DeVos are far more likely to persuade a Republican senator than even the most persuasive speech from a Democratic senator. Murkowski cited constituent feedback as critical in determining her position. And since Murkowski and Collins came out against DeVos last week, the Capitol Hill phone system has been melting with constituent heat for undecided Republican senators.

None of them has budged. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was named as a possibility last week; he has since come out with a statement affirming his support. Sens. Jeff Flake, Dean Heller, Thom Tillis, Mike Crapo, John Hoeven, and Rob Portman all took their turns through the same ringer, and all have since said they’ll support DeVos.

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This does not mean that it would be in vain to continue calling or writing them urging them to change their minds. If the heat is turned up to an extreme following a senator’s announcement of support, one of those senators could rethink. The idea is for a senator to feel that the trouble he or she would get in with constituents for supporting DeVos would be greater than the trouble with Trump for voting against her.

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That’s a high bar to clear, and it’s why Democrats are having such a hard time finding that third Republican defection. It’s not just any vote against DeVos—it’s the one that would seal DeVos’ fate, and embarrass the Trump administration. That vote will be expensive. Earning the lifetime enmity of the new president, as well as falling out of favor with the Republican Senate leadership, would make the would-be 51st senator’s life miserable, without a clear, immediate payoff beyond earning the undesirable title of Democrats’ Favorite Republican Senator. The would-be 51st senator would have to feel that the future of his or her career would be fatally threatened, by some combination of irate constituents and well-funded interest groups, by voting for Betsy DeVos.

It is unclear which senator that could be. If another Republican senator does come out against DeVos by Tuesday afternoon, though, it would be one of the most impressive feats of Democratic organizing in a long time.

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