Senators Confirm Rep. Tom Price as HHS Secretary, Trump’s Key Man in Obamacare Repeal Now in Place

Health and Human Services secretary-nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) arrives for testimony before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee January 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on Price's nomination to be the head of the Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty

In another late-night-early-morning session, the Senate voted 52-to-48 to confirm Rep. Thomas Price (R.-Ga.) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Because Democrats insisted on using up all available time for debate, the Republicans insisted on keeping the Senate in constant session until 1:46 a.m. Friday morning–in keeping with the old adage that the Senate completes its business through either consensus or exhaustion.

When the vote actually began at or around 1:45 a.m., there were virtually no senators on the floor as the clerk ran through the first 23 names, until she read off: “Mr. Cotton.”

Cotton replied with a loud: “Aye!” Senators laughed as they came onto the floor and it clearly was one of the only laughs shared on each side of the aisle since the Senate took up President Donald Trump’s appointees.

Utah Republican Sen. Michael Lee made majority for Price with the 51th vote. The vote reflected the Republicans 52-to-48 majority in the chamber, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D.-Mo.) missed the vote because she was home with her husband, who had a heart procedure.

The other Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch was one of several Republicans joining the floor debate Thursday in favor of Price.

Doctor Price is by any reasonable and objective standard qualified to serve as HHS Secretary,” said Hatch, who earlier in the day was recognized by his colleagues as the longest-serving Republican senator. As the senior Republican, Hatch is the chamber’s President Pro Tempore, a title that goes to the senior member of the majority party. The job is largely ceremonial, but it does put him in line for the presidency behind the Speaker of the House.

“I’ll say by any reasonable and objective standard, he’s qualified to serve as HHS Secretary–there’s nothing in his past record or statements that disqualifies him to serve in that capacity,” Hatch said. “In a better world, he’d be confirmed already.”

Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Texas) said it was wrong for Democrats to delay President Donald Trump’s appointees from taking office, especially when they know that Republicans have the votes.

“This is the longest it’s taken to confirm a majority of a new president’s cabinet, since George Washington in 1789,” the Texan said. “That goes back to the origins of the country–that’s pretty shocking, so for our colleagues to keep the president from his advisers is not only a rejection of the verdict of the ‘American people on Nov. 8, but also to this institution and to the stability of this government.”

President Donald Trump now has his point man in place at Health and Human Services. In the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, the word ‘secretary’ appears more than 3,000 times, which speaks to the enormous independent authority the bill’s authors vested with the head of HHS. Because of this power, Price has the ability to significantly reshape health care regulation and delivery without an act of Congress.

Democrats were especially tough on Price, whose nomination breaks a Republican pattern, honored in the main even by President Ronald Reagan, of appointing liberal-leaning individuals to lead culturally liberal departments, such as Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency. It is not a coincidence that these, with the exception of Dr. Ben Carson at HUD, are the confirmation battles that the Democrats take the most seriously.

Over decades, Democrats in Congress have developed relationships with the bureaucrats in these departments, so that with a Republican in the White House, they continue to function as if a Democrat was in the White House.

What is at stake with Price at HHS is not only his personal conservatism but also his willingness to reboot the department in service of that conservatism.

New Hampshire Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen focused on Price’s stand in favor of restoring legal rights to unborn children and opposition to the mandate in Obamacare that provides women with free birth control during her Thursday night remarks.

“Doctor Price has been a zealous advocate of restricting women’s access to contraception and abolishing our constitutionally protected reproductive rights,” said Shaheen. “He has cosponsored an extreme personhood bill, so-called, that would establish that life begins at conception and he supported a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks.”

In addition to Price’s opposition to Obamacare and his social conservatism, Democrats also focused on his stock trading.

Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken said in 2009 Price voted against giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco, while he owned stock in cigarette companies.

“This is the person, who is slated to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services, someone who personally profited from the increased sales of deadly, addictive products,” Franken said.

A native of Michigan, Price moved to Georgia for his residency after medical school. The doctor stayed in Georgia and specialized in orthopedics before winning his seat in the state senate in 1998, which was followed by his winning his seat in Congress in 2004.

Price replaced  Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) as the chairman of the House Budget Committee when Ryan gave up his chairmanship of the Budget Committee to take over Ways and Means in January 2015. Price’s great achievement as Budget chairman was his 2015 bill to repeal Obamacare, which passed both the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by President Barack Obama.

Before Price’s repeal bill, the House had passed dozens of bills to repeal Obamacare and none of them passed the Senate. The 2015 bill and the use of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate are the models for the current effort by Republicans to undo Obama’s landmark health care reform legislation.

The 2015 bill and the use of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate are the models for the current effort by Republicans to undo Obama’s landmark health care reform legislation.


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