(Bloomberg) — Democrats began a key hearing on President Donald Trump’s pick to overhaul Obamacare by attacking his aggressive investing in healthcare companies, an attempt to derail the nomination by hammering on ethics even though Republicans can force a confirmation with a party-line vote.
Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, slammed Georgia Representative Tom Price’s “abuse of his position” by buying privately offered shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd. as Congress weighed bills that could affect his investments. Democrats need to persuade Republicans on the panel to oppose Price in order to block his appointment as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; so far they have defended Price, and none have indicated they’d vote him down.
The Democratic tactic is part of a broad strategy of focusing on Republicans’ business practices. Trump, a real estate investor who has refused to release his tax returns and faces accusations of conflicts of interest, has said he would “drain the swamp” of a Washington enmeshed in self-dealing. However, his appointees, many drawn from the world of finance and richer by far than most government officials, have provided rich targets for Democrats who say he is quickly refilling it.
Price, a doctor who helped found an orthopedic surgery practice in Georgia, on Tuesday told the committee that will vote on sending his nomination to the full chamber that he had acted blamelessly.
“Everything I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent,” Price said, in response to a question from Wyden, of Oregon. He blamed a “clerical error” for disclosing a stake in Innate that was far smaller than his actual holdings.
Lawmakers zeroed in on his investment in Innate in a hearing last week as well. The Australian company is testing a drug that could be used to help treat multiple sclerosis. Unlike his other trades, which were handled by a financial broker, Price said he personally made the decision to invest in the drugmaker.
At the same time that Price invested in Innate Immuno, negotiations were under way for a bill called the 21st Century Cures Act that would help speed drug approvals, which Price voted in favor of during its 2016 passage into law. Price said last week that he learned of the drugmaker from Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican who sits on the board of the company, but wasn’t privy to non-public information before purchasing the stock.
Democrats also asked last week about other investments, which were done through the nominee’s financial adviser, Morgan Stanley. They included stock in medical device manufacturer Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc., bought last year just before Price introduced legislation that would have benefited companies that make hip and knee replacements. While Price introduced the legislation a few days after the purchase, he didn’t learn of the stock purchase until the following month, according to a fact sheet from Trump’s transition team.
On Tuesday, Wyden also questioned Price on his plans for the Affordable Care Act. Since the first hearing, Trump has issued an executive order on repealing the health-care law, commanding federal agencies to waive or delay requirements of Obamacare that impose economic or regulatory burdens on states, families and the health-care industry. Trump hasn’t indicated how he envisions the order being implemented.
Obamacare, passed in 2010, expanded coverage to 20 million people in the U.S. Newly empowered Republicans, despite years of votes to end the former president’s signature policy measure, haven’t coalesced around a course of action to change it.
Trump has promised “insurance for everybody,” but Price refused to say Tuesday whether the president’s plans would lead to individuals losing coverage. He said he’d commit to “making certain that every single American has access to affordable health coverage.”
When Wyden noted a final time that Price wouldn’t say whether anyone would lose coverage, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch chuckled, asking, “Well, how can anybody commit to that?”
Vice President Mike Pence met Monday evening with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, and other party leaders to discuss Obamacare.
“The president is committed to repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously and we’re working out the details,” Pence told reporters.
Asked about the timing of legislation, he answered, “soon.”
At the hearing, Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, asked Price whether it’s true that he is helping Trump develop a plan to repeal and replace the law.
“It’s true that he said that,” Price replied, to laughter. Asked to expand, he would say only, “I’ve had conversations with the president about health care.”
Brown said, “I’m still not sure if the president lied, not to you but us, about whether he’s actually working with you.”
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