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Dick Durbin tells Betsy DeVos cuts to Special Olympics get "gold medal for insensitivity"

Heated exchange over Special Olympics funding

Amid revelations that the Trump administration would be proposing eliminating all funding for the Special Olympics, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin chastised Secretary Betsy DeVos, saying the idea deserved a "Special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity." She gave remarks during a hearing before a Senate education panel where she once again defended her agency's budget.

President Trump later told reporters that the Special Olympics would be funded before departing for a rally in Michigan. Mr. Trump said that he had heard about the cuts Thursday morning, and "overridden" members of his administration to reinsert the funding.

"I have overridden my people, we're funding the Special Olympics," Mr. Trump said.

Durbin asked DeVos if she had personally approved the elimination of $18 million from the Education Department's allocation for Special Olympics. DeVos replied that she hadn't but nonetheless defended the cut, saying, "We had to make tough choices and decisions around the budget priorities."

That answer riled Durbin, who retorted, "Let me tell you, whoever came up, whoever came up with that idea at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] gets a Special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity."

Betsy DeVos
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seen March 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Getty

Most of the Special Olympics budget comes from private sources. But the Trump administration's proposal would slash at least $7 billion from the Education Department programs, including funding for the Special Olympics, the world's largest sports organization for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The organization received $17.6 million in federal funding this year.

"To think that we can't spend $18 million to support this dramatically successful venture which incidentally started in Chicago, Illinois, and now reaches countries all across the world, millions of young people with disabilities," Durbin said. "And let me tell you where I think you can save some money for Special Olympics and other worthy causes. We know that 9 percent of post-secondary students go to for-profit colleges and universities. Do you know what percentage of the student loan defaults total, student loan defaults in the United States involve students from for-profit colleges and universities?"

Durbin certainly already knew the answer to that question. A 2017 analysis by the Century Foundation found that students attending for-profit colleges filed almost all of the requests for student loan forgiveness alleging fraud — 98 percent. And DeVos has faced heavy criticism for giving the for-profit college industry a boost by undoing Obama-era regulations that would have added protections for those students.

DeVos attempted to clarify her remarks, telling lawmakers "I love Special Olympics myself. I have given a portion of my salary to Special Olympics." She fired back at Durbin, claiming he was using "disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative."

"That is just disgusting and it's shameful, and I think you should move on from that," criticized DeVos.

Durbin, not backing down, slammed DeVos: "Let me tell you what, eliminating $18 million out of an $70 to $80 billion budget I think is shameful, too. I'm not twisting it." He added, "Somebody has to accept responsibility for a bad decision."

Rob Legare contributed to this report.