Senate education committee deadlocks on Biden’s nominee for civil rights head

by Jeremy

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Dive Brief:

  • A Senate committee Tuesday did not advance the nomination of Catherine Lhamon, the White House’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

  • Her nomination was held up in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in an 11 to 11 tie vote along party lines, reflecting the stark partisan divisions around her record as former OCR head under the Obama administration.

  • Lhamon still could be confirmed if a Senate leader attempts to move her nomination out of committee and the full Senate approves it. 

Dive Insight:

Lhamon is vying for a key department role, one charged with helping ensure equal educational access, including protecting students against sexual misconduct and LGBTQ and racial prejudice.

The position is even more important as the Biden administration begins to rework the federal rule on Title IX, the law banning sex-based discrimination in educational settings. Lhamon could help shape how colleges are required to respond to and investigate campus sexual violence.

But her nomination may be in jeopardy. The HELP committee’s split tally sets off another round of government procedures. 

The Senate majority or minority leader would have to bring a motion to the Senate floor to move Lhamon’s nomination from the HELP committee. If that motion passes, then the entire body can vote whether to confirm her.

While this is a possibility, in the short term, the Senate is almost entirely focused on crafting and passing an infrastructure bill palatable across the political spectrum.

Lhamon will also likely face a challenging confirmation vote in the full Senate.

Republicans on the HELP committee last month grilled her about her tenure during the Obama administration, when she was a major figure in helping enforce its approach to campus sexual violence. The Obama administration released guidance on Title IX that elevated national awareness of these issues, advocates for sexual assault providers say. 

Yet GOP lawmakers have accused her of overreaching and acting beyond the Education Department’s authority during the Obama years. They criticize the department for dictating policies on sexual violence through the guidance documents that did not carry the force of law, rather than going through the regulatory process.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is the HELP committee’s ranking member, said during a hearing last month that Lhamon’s history was “deeply troubling if not outright disqualifying.” 

The Education Department is currently working on a new Title IX rule to replace one issued by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that took effect last August.

Proponents of the DeVos regulation say it injects necessary due process into campus procedures. But the rule’s critics say it severely limits what sexual misconduct cases colleges need to look into and creates unnecessary judiciary-like systems for adjudicating them.

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