By Amy Goldstein and Sean Sullivan
WASHINGTON - A polarized Senate voted early Friday morning to confirm Tom Price, the conservative Georgia congressman who has been one of Congress’s most vehement opponents of the Affordable Care Act, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The 52-47 vote made Price the latest in a series of controversial Cabinet nominees whom the Senate’s Republican majority has been strong enough to muscle through on party-line votes.
Price did not draw a single vote from Senate Democrats, who argued that the intersection of the nominee’s personal investments and legislative behavior warranted deeper scrutiny of his ethics.
Lacking the votes to defeat his confirmation, Democrats instead marshaled a war of words. They used the hours leading to the 2 a.m. roll call to read testimonials from Americans with severe, expensive-to-treat illnesses and gratitude to the ACA, Medicare or Medicaid - cornerstones of federal health policy that the Democrats accused the nominee of wanting to undermine.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who as a 2016 presidential candidate energized many progressive voters, accused the White House of hypocrisy. President Donald Trump, he contended, had campaigned on promises not to cut the nation’s main entitlement programs but then chose as his HHS secretary a congressman who has long sought to weaken them.
“The American people are still waiting for that one tweet that says, ‘I will keep my promise,’” Sanders said.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave an impassioned defense of the new president’s choice to lead one of the government’s largest departments, saying that Price “can help bring stability to the health-care markets Obamacare has harmed. He can bring relief to families that Obamacare has hurt.”
The vote followed Senate confirmation of a half-dozen of Trump’s Cabinet-level appointments - which have progressed with little of the comity that traditionally defined the chamber’s culture. During the floor debate Wednesday on Jeff Sessions for attorney general, Republicans invoked a rarely used rule to formally rebuke Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., contending that she had impugned the conduct of a Senate colleague by reading long-ago statements critical of his civil rights record, including a letter by the late Corretta Scott King.
Democratic opposition to Price’s nomination triggered fireworks last week in the Senate Finance Committee, a panel with jurisdiction over the HHS. First, all of the committee’s Democrats boycotted what was to have been the session to decide whether to recommend Price to the rest of the Senate; their absence prevented the GOP majority from conducting the vote. The next day, the Republicans changed the committee rules to allow the vote to proceed and unanimously supported Price without a single Democrat in the room.
The debate over the HHS nominee opened in the full Senate on Wednesday night with Democrats casting the prospect of Price as the government’s top health official in apocalyptic terms.
It began with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, predicting that”this is about whether the United States will go back to the dark days when health care worked only for the healthy and wealthy.”
As debate was ending, Wyden gave a stinging denunciation, focusing on what he called “a coverup” by Price about his purchase last year of discounted stock in a small Australian biotechnology company in which a fellow GOP congressman is the largest shareholder. Alleging that the nominee “failed to come clean” about whether he had special access to buy the stock because of his position, Wyden said, “It ought to shake this body’s confidence in Dr. Price.”
McConnell delivered a sharply different portrayal, saying that Price, an orthopedic surgeon for two decades before entering politics, “doesn’t just understand health-care policy as a policymaker, though he does deeply. He also understands it as a practicing physician.”
A fellow Georgian, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, spoke of the nominee in superlatives. He has known and trusted Price for 30 years, Isakson said - as a neighbor, as his doctor and his successor in the House.
As Thursday evening wore on and few Republicans chose to speak, the hours became a litany of Democratic complaint.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., linked Price to what Democrats have begun to call “the swamp Cabinet,” a group with “a huge array of conflicts of interest. . . . If we could stop them we would do so because we think they will do damage to the American people - damage to Medicare, damage to Medicaid . . . damage to clean air . . . damage to clean water.”
When Warren took the floor, she made no reference to her rebuke before Sessions’ confirmation. Instead, she repeatedly asked, “Where are three Republicans” willing to join the Democrats in objecting to Price as she read letter after letter from Massachusetts residents with cancers, premature babies and devastating chronic diseases whose treatment was covered by government insurance programs she said Price wants to abolish or cut.
The confirmation of a Health and Human Services secretary raises anew the question of what role the White House will play as Republicans try to come up with an approach to abolishing the ACA and creating a more conservative set of health-care policies.
At his first news conference after the election in November, Trump said that his administration would submit a plan to “repeal and replace” the 2010 health-care law “almost simultaneously” with Price’s confirmation. He said the plan “will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day. Could be the same hour.”
In an interview with The Washington Post the following weekend, Trump said that a plan with the goal of “insurance for everybody” was “very much formulated down to the final strokes.” He reiterated that he was awaiting Price’s confirmation.
Asked at his confirmation hearing whether he was involved with writing a plan, Price drew laughs by partly deflecting the question.
In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that aired Sunday, Trump seemed to retreat from his earlier timetable. Asked whether Americans can expect “a new health-care plan rolled out by the Trump administration this year,” the president said the process is “very complicated” and that undoing a law and putting something in its place “takes a while to get.”
“Maybe it’ll take till sometime into next year,” he said, although “the rudiments” could be released in late 2017. His comments were ambiguous about whether the White House was preparing its own plan.
“We’re gonna to be putting it in fairly soon,” he said, without elaborating.