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Senate grills Education pick Betsy DeVos on experience, family donations

Betsy DeVos speaks during her confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Betsy DeVos spoke during her confirmation hearing.

WASHINGTON — Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, was forced to fend off questions Tuesday about possible conflicts of interest, her family’s donations to antigay groups, and her lack of experience in education policy during a testy Senate nomination hearing.

DeVos also came under repeated grilling by Democrats over her ties to charter schools and her support of “school choice’’ programs that advocates fear will undermine America’s public school system.

DeVos is among the greenest of Trump’s nominees and one whom Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are eager to portray as a billionaire dilettante who is incapable of running the country’s $70 billion federal education bureaucracy.

She deflected the most uneasy thrust of questioning — and surprised some Democratic senators — by distancing herself from donations given by her family to groups that support conversion therapy for gays and lesbians.

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“I fully embrace equality,” said DeVos.

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DeVos, whose husband is heir to the Amway fortune, said that she wouldn’t “take a salary” as the secretary of education.

She also tried to ease concerns that Democrats have that she’ll attack public education in favor of charter schools, a pet cause.

“The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools,” DeVos said. “If confirmed, I will be an advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

Warren honed in on the part of DeVos job that deals with student debt, explaining that DeVos would oversee roughly $1 trillion in student debt.

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“The secretary of education is essentially responsible running a $1 trillion bank,” Warren said. “Do you have any direct experience in running a bank?”

“Senator, I do not” said DeVos.

“Have you ever managed or overseen a trillion dollar loan program?”

“I have not,” DeVos replied.

“A billion dollar loan program?” Warren tried.

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“I have not,” DeVos said.

“OK. So no experience,” Warren said.

DeVos split with Trump on one key area.

She was asked by Senator Patty Murray whether she would consider Trump’s crude comments about groping women that were publicized in an “Access Hollywood” tape to be sexual assault.

Speaking softly, she said “yes.”

The Department of Education isn’t typically a high-profile position and confirmation hearings for the secretary job rarely attract much attention. The education secretary is 14th in line of succession to the president, outranking only the secretary for veterans affairs and the secretary of homeland security.

But in this case a combination of forces heightened drama around DeVos’s nomination: the department she wants to lead has oversight over the student loan industry and the tools to help make higher education more affordable, both areas that were flashpoints in the 2016 presidential election. And her family has donated tens of millions of dollars to conservative causes, including funding the litigation that led to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that removed many restrictions on campaign contributions in US elections.

There were plenty of indications that Republicans harbored concerns about the intensity of Democrats’ questions. The hearing was postponed once, and started just after sunset at 5:14 p.m., a time when congressional hearings more typically end than begin.

DeVos’s go-to response was polite deflection, which kept the proceedings on a largely civil plane.

“I look forward to working with you on that issue,” DeVos said on multiple occasions, including when she was asked about student debt. She gave similar answers on the notion of tuition-free college, curtailing waste, fraud, and abuse, and sexual abuse on campuses.

But even the person who introduced her, former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat who was his party’s 2000 nominee for vice president, couldn’t quite escape the experience issue.

Among her qualifications, Lieberman noted that DeVos has mentored students. But he mostly abandoned much of a defense of her thin resume.

“She’ll ask the right questions,” Lieberman assured the committee. “You just can’t accept the status quo in education any more.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who rose in prominence last year with his unexpectedly tough challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, plowed through a line of uncomfortable questions for the nominee.

“Can you be so kind as to tell us how much money your family has contributed to the Republican Party?” Sanders asked.

“I wish I could give you that number. I don’t know,” DeVos replied.

Sanders asked if the number could be $200 million, a figure that’s been reported by The New Yorker.

“That’s, that’s possible,” DeVos replied, stammering slightly.

Then Sanders asked the question that most Washington observers have been wondering since Trump named her to the post.

“My question, and I don’t mean to be rude, is if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party, would you be sitting here today?

“Senator as a matter of fact I do think there would be a possibility,” DeVos said.

Another topic of concern for the Democratic senators was that ethics officials haven’t finished scrutinizing DeVos investments for potential conflicts. Alexander, the chairman, pledged that the senators on the panel would receive a report from the ethics office before they vote on DeVos.

Already some private education companies have expressed excitement about her rise. K12 Inc., a publicly traded company that runs online charter schools, touted her nomination and described her as “pro-school choice & virtual options.” The DeVos family used to be investors in that firm, but sold their shares in 2008, according to a spokesman.

Democratic senators on the panel wanted more time to examine her investments.

“I am extremely concerned,” said Murray, the top Democrat on the committee. “I can only hope that cutting corners and rushing nominees through will not be the new norm.”

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.