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Sharply divided Senate approves Tom Price as Health secretary

Tom Price

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), President Trump’s pick to be Health and Human Services secretary, testifies last month before a Senate committee.

(Tribune News Service)

Rep. Tom Price won Senate confirmation early Friday to be Health and Human Services secretary, overcoming bitter opposition from Democrats who have criticized the Georgia congressman’s calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act and scale back Medicare, Medicaid and other government safety net programs.

The 52-47 vote broke along party lines with every Republican in the chamber voting to confirm Price and every Democrat and independent voting against him, except Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who opposes Price but missed the vote to be home with her husband while he underwent surgery.

Price is now expected to assume a leading role in helping guide the Republican effort to roll back the healthcare law, often called Obamacare, and to develop an alternative.

GOP lawmakers, despite years of pledging to replace the law, are scrambling to settle on a strategy and overcome divisions within the party.

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That has repeatedly delayed the repeal, which President Trump and congressional Republicans once said would be done within days of Trump’s inauguration. 

To date, neither Trump nor senior GOP lawmakers have produced legislation to either repeal the current law or replace it. And last weekend, Trump hinted that the “repeal and replace” effort could drag into 2018.

Price, a former orthopedic surgeon and longtime ally of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), has been a leading champion of the repeal campaign and a favorite of the Republican base.

He was an early supporter of the tea party movement and has sponsored legislation to overhaul the healthcare system, scaling back Medicaid and replacing Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces.

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That has endeared him to many Republican lawmakers, who praised Price’s record and have expressed hope that he will be able to help accelerate the repeal push.

“He’s had a tremendous experience, a wealth of experience in the practice of medicine, understands these problems and has been a great member of the House of Representatives,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said during Price’s confirmation hearing. “Virtually all of the attempts I’ve witnessed to characterize Dr. Price’s views as being ‘outside of the mainstream,’ have been patently absurd.”  

Price’s nomination has been among Trump’s most controversial, in part because of his hostility to government safety net programs, including Medicaid and Medicare.

“This is a nominee with an extreme agenda,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

“His proposals would strip tens of millions of Americans of their health coverage. His proposals would put Americans with preexisting conditions in danger of losing coverage for the care they need. His proposals would slash Medicare. His proposals would shred Medicaid.”

Democrats have also been increasingly critical of Price’s extensive trading in healthcare stocks while he has been in Congress, and in some cases while he has pushed legislation that would benefit his portfolio.

Also drawing criticism was Price’s purchase of discounted shares in an Australian biotech firm, Innate Immunotherapeudics, which he was offered through a private deal not available to general shareholders.

The pattern of stock trading stunned many government ethics experts, who have said Price’s behavior raises serious questions.

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Price has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

But Senate Democrats, demanding further investigation of the stock trades, boycotted a committee vote on Price’s nomination, forcing enraged Republicans on the panel to suspend the committee’s rules and advance Price’s nomination to the Senate floor on their own.

Senate Republicans said Price did not violate any ethics rules.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Twitter: @noamlevey

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UPDATES:

7:10 a.m. Feb. 10: This story was updated with the final vote tally.

This story was originally published at 11:20 p.m. Feb. 9.


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