Parties lock horns during Tom Price’s Senate hearing

U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, testifies Wednesday during a Senate hearing on his nomination to become secretary of health and human services. Price, a leading critic of the Affordable Care Act, faced questions about his health care stock purchases before introducing legislation that would benefit the companies. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, testifies Wednesday during a Senate hearing on his nomination to become secretary of health and human services. Price, a leading critic of the Affordable Care Act, faced questions about his health care stock purchases before introducing legislation that would benefit the companies. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price’s first public turn before the Senate on Wednesday was at times a dizzying affair, oscillating between the fuzzy and the theatrical.

Democrats frightened by the GOP’s plans for the government’s health care programs swung hard at the Roswell Republican, while GOP senators enthusiastically backed President-elect Donald Trump’s senior-most health pick.

Price tried to ease Democrats’ concerns, telling them that people would not lose their health care coverage through Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But Democrats did not appear satisfied by his answers.

By the end of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s highly partisan four-hour grilling of Price, it appeared that few minds had been changed about the Cabinet nominee.

For Price, that will likely be enough to get confirmed — perhaps narrowly — as the 23rd secretary of health and human services, presumably in the weeks ahead.

Democrats must persuade three Republicans to buck their party and their incoming president to prevent that, and judging from senators’ statements at Wednesday’s hearing, they’re unlikely to be able to do so barring any major eleventh-hour developments.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee, wasted little time delving into the minutia of Price's stock trades at the hearing's outset. She said Price privately told her his purchase of shares of an Australian biotech company was based off a stock tip from U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, implying that Price may have received a sweetheart deal or acted on inside information.

Price said Murray’s recollection was “not correct,” and he sharply defended his actions. “I had no access to nonpublic information,” he said, adding, “Everything that we have done has been aboveboard, transparent, ethical and legal.”

Democrat after Democrat hammered Price on individual stock trades — party leaders, including Murray, had unsuccessfully called for a delay of Price's confirmation hearings until after an ethics investigation was completed — but their Republican colleagues indicated they had little patience for those attacks.

“This appears to be nothing more than a hypocritical attack on your good character,” said Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the second panel that will mull Price’s nomination. “And I personally resent it because you have always disclosed.”

Georgia U.S. Johnny Isakson, a member of the committee, also took the ceremonial action of introducing Price at the beginning of the hearing.

The Republican called Price “the right man for the right job at the right time for America,” and he warned Democrats about being too critical of a colleague’s finances.

"It's entirely possible for any of us to have somebody making investments on our behalf and us not know where that money is invested because of the very way it works," said Isakson, who is also the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He had spent the days leading up to the hearing calling Democratic colleagues on Price's behalf.

Policy differences

Price’s performance during the hearing was a steady one, and he appeared to emerge from it relatively unscathed.

His testimony Wednesday was notable because it marked the first time the seven-term lawmaker had publicly laid out his vision for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since being nominated shortly after Thanksgiving.

“We all want a health care system that’s affordable, that’s accessible to all, of the highest quality, with the greatest number of choices, driven by world-leading innovations, and responsive to the needs of the individual patient,” he told the panel, adding that his six guiding principles are “affordability, accessibility, quality, choices, innovation and responsiveness.”

Price also sought to quell the fears of Democrats concerned that the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare would leave millions uninsured.

“One of the important things we need to convey is that nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage,” Price said. “That is not our goal nor is it our desire nor is it our plan.”

Democrats were resistant to that argument.

“Just last week, you voted to begin the process of ripping apart our health care system without any plan to replace it,” Murray said. “… My constituents are coming up to me with tears in their eyes wondering what the future holds for their health care given the chaos Republican efforts could cause.”

Other Democrats, including liberal U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, sought to test the policy divides between Price and Trump.

Price has personally advocated for overhauling the Medicare and Medicaid entitlement programs that provide health coverage to tens of millions of Americans ages 65 and older, as well as poor children and the disabled. But when asked about Trump’s campaign pledge not to touch the programs, Price said he had “no reason to believe (Trump’s) position has changed.”

Sanders, the Vermont independent and former Democratic presidential candidate, also questioned Price on his past opposition to legislation that would have required the government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. Trump, breaking with GOP precedent, wants to pressure pharmaceutical companies regarding drug costs.

Sanders wasn’t thrilled with Price’s answer: “You have my commitment to work with you and others to make certain that the drug pricing is reasonable” and “individuals across the country have access” to the prescriptions they need.

Warren appeared to be the lawmaker who got under Republicans’ skin the most.

The Massachusetts Democrat lectured Price on his stock trades and repeatedly asked him to ensure that he wouldn’t cut a dollar from entitlement programs.

Dollars are “the wrong metric,” Price replied. “It’s the care of the patients.”

“You might want to print out President-elect Trump’s statement, ‘I am not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,’ and post that above your desk in your new office,” Warren said, “because Americans will be watching to make sure you follow through on that promise.”

The confirmation hearing was the first of two for the Roswell Republican. The Finance Committee, which will ultimately vote to advance Price’s nomination before it heads to the full Senate for consideration, is scheduled to question him Tuesday.

Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate health committee, said he was hopeful Price could be confirmed in early February.

A policy wonk and orthopedic surgeon, Price if confirmed would become the first doctor to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in more than 20 years. The last doctor to do so was Louis W. Sullivan, an Atlanta resident and the founder of the Morehouse School of Medicine.