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Lawmakers Grill DeVos on Budget Proposal

Updated (6/6/2017, 3:50 p.m.) with information about the Education Department’s responses to letters from congressional Democrats.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took fire from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday during a tense U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing about the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, kicked off the hearing with an indictment of the proposed budget, saying it was “difficult” to defend. “The kinds of cuts proposed in this budget will not occur,” he said. Mr. Blunt also questioned the recent decision to choose a single loan servicer to manage the billions of dollars in student loans the department issues.

In her opening remarks, Ms. DeVos said the budget request “reduces the complexity of funding for college while prioritizing efforts to help make a college education accessible for low-income students through programs like year-round Pell.” She later added that the department is on track to have year-round funding for Pell Grants available on July 1.

The budget request, released in late May, includes steep cuts in — or the wholesale elimination of — several federal grant programs, as well as Federal Work-Study; the Education Department’s total operating budget would be slashed by $9 billion. The administration, however, says the cuts are necessary to remove the bloat in the federal budget that harms taxpayers. The budget covers the fiscal year that begins on October 1.

When the budget request was released, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chair of the Senate education committee, said, “Congress will write the budget and set the spending priorities.  Where we find good ideas in the president’s budget, we will use them.”

Several Republicans at the hearing took issue with the administration’s proposed cuts. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama called the suggestion to reduce funding for grant programs in career and technical education “troubling.”

For their part, the Democrats did not pull punches. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, ranking member of the Senate education committee and a fierce critic of Ms. DeVos, said that she had been “extremely disappointed” with what she had seen in the past few months. “You haven’t backed away from your unpopular and unsupported agenda. You haven’t made any attempt to compromise or work with us in good faith,” she said. Ms. Murray also took issue with the perceived lack of follow-through by the secretary regarding commitments she made during her confirmation hearing, in January.

During a particularly tense moment, Ms. Murray questioned the department’s unresponsiveness to letters from congressional Democrats. Politico reported last week that the radio silence was the result of an administration-wide policy. Ms. DeVos pushed back against that notion, saying that the department had been responding to the letters. ”I really do want to work with you,” she told Ms. Murray, adding that the two should have a phone call.

“It’s helpful for us to have answers in writing,” Ms. Murray responded.

The department had responded to six letters at the time of the hearing, according to an aide for Ms. Murray, and issued three more responses following the hearing.

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