Democrats vow to hold Senate floor through the night to object education secretary nomination

People hold signs during a rally calling for the US Senate to vote against confirming US President Donald J. Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Mrs Betsy DeVos, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Feb 6, 2017.
People hold signs during a rally calling for the US Senate to vote against confirming US President Donald J. Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Mrs Betsy DeVos, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Feb 6, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Tensions over President Donald Trump's nominations turned into a parliamentary game of chicken on Monday (Feb 6), with Republican leaders vowing to keep the Senate in session, day and night, until lawmakers confirm four of his Cabinet picks.

After days of grasping at procedural hurdles, Democrats held vigil against Mrs Betsy DeVos, Mr Trump's polarising nominee for education secretary, and promised to spend the final 24 hours before her confirmation vote on Tuesday reiterating their objections.

But as Democrats made clear they had no intention of yielding even a minute of their allotted floor time to debate Mr Trump's nominations - a final act of parliamentary disobedience for a minority party that lacks the votes to block a nominee on its own - Republicans stood their ground.

Daring Democrats to keep their word at the expense of several sleepless nights, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, said the Senate session would not end until lawmakers confirmed four of Mr Trump's nominees: Mrs DeVos, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Tom Price of Georgia to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Mr Steven T. Mnuchin as Treasury secretary.

The effort could last into Saturday and might involve burning "a little midnight oil," Mr Cornyn said.

Short one critical but elusive Republican "no" vote against Ms DeVos - a billionaire philanthropist with little experience in public schools and a remarkably shaky showing at her confirmation hearing - Democrats on Monday did the only thing they could: They talked.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington announced that Democrats would occupy the floor until the vote on Mrs DeVos' nomination, which is expected around midday on Tuesday.

Ms Murray is the top Democrat on the committee that approved Mrs DeVos along a party-line vote, and one of her most strident opponents.

Publicly, Democrats held out hope that they could woo one more Republican dissenter to join Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in voting against Mrs DeVos. Both announced last week that they would not support her nomination.

Their defections, combined with a unified vote from the Democratic caucus, set up a 50-50 tie on the nomination, which Vice-President Mike Pence would have to break in his capacity as president of the Senate.

Appearing later at a demonstration outside the Capitol, Murray urged protesters to pressure Republicans to oppose DeVos. "If we can persuade one more Republican to do the right thing, we can double down on the message we're all sending to President Trump: The Senate stands with public education!" Murray said.

A deluge of constituent calls and messages against Mr Trump's nominees and executive orders has overwhelmed some Senate offices and even the Capitol phone system in recent days, echoing demonstrations across the country.

Energised by the opposition, Democrats seemed ready on Monday to resort to sleeping bags if necessary.

Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen said Mrs DeVos had embraced a philosophy that abandoned poorer families. She has been vehemently criticised by many education advocates for favouring voucher programs over repairing public schools.

"What do we say to them?" Mr Van Hollen asked.