Republicans powered President Trump’s education secretary nominee through the Senate on Tuesday, though their slim majority meant that confirming Betsy DeVos required calling upon Vice President Mike Pence to cast his first vote and break the tie.
Minutes later the GOP also broke Democrats’ attempted filibuster aimed at derailing Sen. Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump’s pick to be the new attorney general. A final vote is slated for Wednesday.
“The president deserves to have his Cabinet in place,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Pence swore Mrs. DeVos into office Tuesday afternoon, and she promised in a Twitter message to “improve options & outcomes for all U.S. students.”
She cleared on a 51-50 vote, with two Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan M. Collins of Maine — joining every Democrat in opposition and forcing the tie that Mr. Pence had to break.
It was the first time a vice president has been called upon to be the deciding vote in confirming a Cabinet nominee. It was a sign both of how firmly Democrats are resisting Mr. Trump early in the new administration and how controversial some of his early moves have been.
But Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation also underscores the limited powers Democrats have to halt the GOP when Republicans are intent on backing Mr. Trump.
Democrats have targeted more than a half-dozen of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet picks as bad choices, but Mrs. DeVos took on special significance with the powerful teachers’ unions, a key force within the Democratic Party, insisting on fierce opposition.
“DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Democrats rallied to the opposition call, mounting a round-the-clock vigil on the Senate floor Monday night and into Tuesday. They attacked Mrs. DeVos’ qualifications and said the wealthy philanthropist showed a lack of knowledge about the department she’ll lead and the issues facing schools.
“On basic competence, she has failed to make the grade,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “She didn’t seem to know about the federal education law that guarantees education to students with disabilities, she couldn’t unequivocally say that guns shouldn’t be in schools, and she didn’t seem to know about a long-simmering debate in education policy about measuring growth versus proficiency.”
Calls had poured into Senate offices over Mrs. DeVos. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, reported more than 100,000 contacts, overwhelmingly against the nominee, whose husband is part of the family that founded Amway.
Mr. Schumer called Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski “profiles in courage” for breaking with the rest of the GOP, but lamented no other Republicans peeled away from their president.
“I realize it rarely occurs, but this should be an exception because she is so uniquely unqualified, whether it comes to competence, whether it comes to philosophy — against the public schools — or whether it comes to conflicts of interest, which still exist in far too many instances,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mrs. DeVos was just the sixth of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet nominees to be confirmed, nearly three weeks into his term. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush each had seven nominees approved on Jan. 20, their first day in office.
Democrats are putting each of Mr. Trump’s nominees this week through all the procedural hoops, drawing out the process for each of them. For Mrs. DeVos that meant surviving three separate votes.
Democrats say Mr. Trump invited the roadblocks by picking the most controversial Cabinet in memory, while Republicans said Democrats are refusing to accept the results of the election.
Mr. McConnell said he expected Democrats’ “show will go on for a while longer,” but said at some point it will end.
“You’ve got to wonder about dysfunction and fatigue beginning to set in,” he said. “I predict that will happen some time in the near future, and we’ll get back to a more normal kind of operating style.”