CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - In her first weeks in Washington, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan has emerged as a fierce critic of President Donald Trump’s nominees to lead the federal education and health departments.
The New Hampshire Democrat used her experiences as a mother of a son with cerebral palsy and as a former governor to pose questions this week to Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education nominee, and to Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price, the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. While Hassan is highly critical of both, she said she will support some of Trump’s nominees, including Gen. James Mattis as Defense secretary, Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security and Elaine Chao as Transportation secretary.
Her exchange with DeVos over the federal law that requires that students with disabilities have equal access to education in particular is drawing notice. Hassan referenced her son Ben, who graduated from public high school in Exeter, when she asked about DeVos’ commitment to making sure voucher schools don’t skirt that federal law. DeVos never gave a clear answer.
“I don’t think it was a hard question at all,” Hassan told The Associated Press on Friday. “I was absolutely appalled that she had such little familiarity with a critical and major civil rights law that protects millions of children.”
The exchange grew sharp when DeVos said she would be “very sensitive” to the needs of special needs students.
Hassan responded: “With all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education.”
DeVos’ team is defending her commitment to students with disabilities, pointing to her support for school choice programs that allow parents to choose where their children go. Tera Myers, an Ohio mom to a son with Down syndrome who attended the hearing, said the existing federal law has flaws.
“(It) covers all students with special needs, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the law is serving all students,” she said in a quote provided by a DeVos spokeswoman.
Later in the week, Hassan brought up New Hampshire’s ongoing opioid abuse crisis while questioning Price. Price is a staunch opponent of repealing the Affordable Care Act. New Hampshire accepted federal dollars under the law to expand Medicaid to roughly 50,000 people, which includes coverage of substance abuse treatment.
“I’m concerned about your unwillingness to commit to making sure that insurance companies cover these essential benefits,” she said.
During her two terms as governor, Hassan had to work with Republican legislators to accomplish her goals. Now, as part of the Democratic minority in Congress, she’ll be a key part of resisting Republicans’ agenda. She said Friday that she’s had good conversations with some GOP colleagues and hopes to find common ground on some issues.
Hassan edged Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte in November to take her seat in the U.S. Senate. She is the second woman in American history to serve as a governor and senator; the first was Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, also from New Hampshire.
“I do think having been governor is helping me focus certain questions in this work,” she said. “Because I really am trying to drill down every day on how what we do here in Washington will impact the lives of my constituents.”
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