New ethics questions dog Tom Price at hearing, but GOP support holds

Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this article.

A key Senate Republican announced his intent to forge ahead with consideration of the Cabinet nomination of Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price on Tuesday, even after new questions arose about the Roswell Republican’s stock trades and knowledge of a supposed White House plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the 26-member panel he leads will vote “promptly” on Price’s nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. That means Price could potentially be confirmed as the 23rd U.S. health chief as soon as next week.

Hatch’s remarks came at the tail end of a four-hour confirmation hearing, Price’s second in a week.

Senators on the Finance Committee hit many of the same notes that their counterparts on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did last week, but Tuesday’s confirmation hearing was more frequently tense and testy than the previous session. That’s because only the Finance Committee will vote on Price’s Cabinet nomination before it is taken up by the full Senate.

Democrats continued to drill down on Price’s stock trades, seizing on a new bipartisan report from the committee’s staff that alleged the nominee initially undervalued the value of stock he owned in an Australian biotech firm on his disclosure forms.

The memo, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the value of the more than 400,000 shares of stock that Price owned in Innate Immunotherapeutics was roughly double the $50,000 to $100,000 he initially claimed.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the committee, dug in on the fact that Price made the investments while he served on Capitol Hill committees that write health care policy.

“Set aside the legal issues, it is hard to see this as anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of position,” Wyden said.

Price and his Republican allies vehemently defended his disclosures. The seven-term congressman attributed the discrepancy to a “clerical error.”

“The reality is that everything that I did was ethical, aboveboard, legal and transparent,” he said.

‘Character witness’

For the second time in a week, Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson took on the role of chief defender for his longtime Georgia colleague.

“I feel like I’ve been asked to be a character witness in a felony trial in the sentencing phase of a conviction,” said Isakson, who introduced and vouched for Price.

The financial questions were the latest in a string of ethics queries that have dogged Price over the past month. At the moment, however, they do not appear to be having an impact on the Republican senators whose united support Price requires to get confirmed.

GOP senators on Tuesday continued to rally around Price, even as Democrats sought to use every tool in their political arsenal to discredit the nominee.

“The fact of the matter is you’ve been very forthright, very honest, and you’ve indicated that in spite of all the problems with trying to find and fund health care … you’re going to do your doggone double best to make sure health care is delivered to our American people,” Hatch said.

Price needs the support of only 51 senators to win confirmation. With 52 Republicans in the chamber, as long as the party stays together Price’s path ahead will be smooth.

Democrats, however, have indicated they’re not going to let Price go without a fight.

Many on the left sought to frame his views on health care and entitlement programs as extreme and designed to favor the rich.

“The lodestar that I see is that America will end up with health care that works for the healthy and wealthy,” Wyden said. “I’m going to oppose it.”

Health policy

Price seemingly walked back claims from President Donald Trump that the two are working together to draft an Obamacare replacement plan that would be released shortly after he’s confirmed.

“It’s true that he said that, yes,” Price said.

“Not that he’s ever done this before, but did the president lie?” asked U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“I’ve had conversations with the president about health care, yes,” Price said in a response that drew chuckles from the room.

Price dodged questions about the specifics of what the GOP’s proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act would look like. The congressman instead pledged to work with Congress “to make certain that we have the highest quality health care and that every single American has access to affordable coverage.” That view differs from that of Democrats, who believe everyone should have guaranteed health care, not just an option.

When asked about whether vaccines cause autism, a link that’s been widely debunked by scientists but still holds sway in some circles, Price said “the science in that instance is that they don’t.” He was cut off by New Jersey Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez when he sought to continue, “there are some individuals in our country who are very …”

Trump has met with several vaccine skeptics in recent weeks, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who said after his meeting that the president plans to create a vaccine safety commission. The medical news outlet STAT News said Trump’s aides later disputed that claim but indicated the president was considering creating an autism committee.

Local protest

The hearing came the same day that roughly 150 liberal activists protested Price’s nomination and efforts to repeal Obamacare at a busy intersection down the road from the congressman’s Roswell office.

“This is like a concert. It’s a serenade. It’s beautiful,” said Jeff Kazanow, one of the protest’s organizers. “It’s blowing me away. I never expected this.”

The demonstrators held signs that read “Health care is a human right,” “Do no harm … doctor” and “No Tom Price.”

Susan Riba said she was at the protest because she had returned Monday from the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., “and where was I going to go?” She questioned whether Price was qualified for the job, citing his stock trades.

Kazanow said he and others had tried but were unable to talk to Price staffers.

“The office is empty,” he said. “We really tried.”

One counterprotester, Claire Harrison, received her own shouts of support from drivers. She held two American flags and a picture of Trump’s face, and she wore a “Make America great again” hat.

“I’m a big supporter of Tom Price,” Harrison said. “He’s going to do a fine, fine job.”