Price nears Senate confirmation as Trump health secretary

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans pushed President Donald Trump’s pick for health secretary toward Senate confirmation on Thursday, overpowering Democrats who complained that the GOP drive to erase and replace former President Obama’s health care law will end up taking away peoples’ coverage.

The debate over the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to head the Health and Human Services Department was the latest over Trump’s choices, which have prompted near party-line votes and helped fuel a sour atmosphere in the new president’s first weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Price for knowing “more about health care policy than just about anyone.” He added that the conservative seven-term House member from Atlanta’s suburbs “has a clear-eyed view about Washington’s capacity to do great harm.”

Democrats were strongly against Price, a long-time proponent of dismantling Obama’s health care law and reshaping and curbing Medicare and Medicaid.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Price’s past support for raising the usual Medicare eligibility age of 65 is “immoral.” And No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said Price’s backing for reshaping Medicare into a voucher-like program would thrust seniors “back into the loving arms of health insurance companies.”

Price’s nomination came in a week that has seen Democrats, eager to show liberal constituents that they are taking a stand against Trump, ferociously but unsuccessfully oppose two other nominees for top administration jobs.

Over solid Democratic opposition and two GOP defections, it took a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence for the Senate to approve wealthy GOP donor Betsy DeVos on Tuesday to head the Education Department. Under the Constitution, one of the duties of a vice president is to break tie votes in the 100-member Senate.

On Wednesday, the chamber confirmed Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to be attorney general. That debate was bitter, fueled by Democratic accusations that Sessions lacked a devotion to civil rights laws and wouldn’t stand up to Trump.

The Sessions battle also saw a rare Senate wrist-slap against one of its own as Republicans late Tuesday pushed through a rebuke of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for violating the chamber’s rule against impugning a colleague. That came after Warren read on the Senate floor a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow, criticizing Sessions during his rejected judicial nomination 31 years ago.

Republicans have talked longingly of confirming Price because one pillar of their strategy to gut Obama’s law is for the Department of Health and Human Services, which he would run, to issue regulations weakening it. Those might include letting states experiment with how they use federal Medicaid funds and restricting access to free birth control for women who work for religious-affiliated nonprofits.

At Senate hearings on Price’s nomination, Democrats focused on the former orthopedic surgeon’s considerable stock holdings, especially in health care industry companies. They’ve accused him of conflicts of interest by acquiring those shares, pushing legislation that could benefit those companies and making investments using insider information.

Price has said he’s done nothing wrong. It is against the law for members of Congress to engage in insider trading.

Democrats have focused on Price’s purchase last year of around 400,000 shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd., an Australian biotech firm. Price has said he learned of the firm from a colleague, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., the company’s largest shareholder, and Price testified to Congress that the shares he bought were available to any investor.

The company has said Price received a special offer to buy shares at a discount. Price has conceded he understated the value of those stocks in financial disclosure forms he filed.

Price also purchased stock last year in Zimmer Biomet, a manufacturer of medical implant devices, around the same time he introduced legislation that would have suspended Medicare rules seen as problematic for such companies.

Price has said the purchase was done by his stockbroker.

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