Senate Democrats call for ethics inquiry into Tom Price’s stock trades

A trio of senior Senate Democrats called for an investigation into U.S. Rep. Tom Price’s finances on Thursday, saying the chamber should not move forward on the Roswell Republican’s Cabinet nomination until questions about possible insider trading are answered.

Democrats on their own don't have the votes to stop Price's nomination as secretary of health and human services, and they don't know for sure whether Price traded stocks illegally. But they're hoping to capitalize on the House GOP's ethics about-face from earlier this week by stirring up public ire amid President-elect Donald Trump's "drain the swamp" push.

New Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and the top Democrats on the two committees vetting Price said the Office of Congressional Ethics and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should probe the possibility that Price participated in insider trading. The good government group Public Citizen filed inquiries with both entities Thursday morning.

“Bottom line, Congressman Price had the influence and was actively involved in pushing health care policies while simultaneously making dozens of trades in companies that would be impacted by those policies,” Schumer told reporters during a Capitol Hill news conference.

“Whether the law was actually broken, whether there was quid pro quos or inside information, we don’t know, but there’s enough evidence here that it should be investigated before Congressman Price comes up for a hearing,” Schumer added.

The effort comes in response to a report published in The Wall Street Journal last month that said Price traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related stock while pushing legislation on Capitol Hill that could have an impact on those businesses' bottom lines.

That in itself is not insider trading. Opponents must prove Price acted on specific, nonpublic information when trading individual stocks — a tall order.

Price’s staff did not respond to the Senate Democrats’ effort on Thursday, but Trump’s transition team was quick to call hypocrisy. It sent out a document listing the health insurance and pharmaceutical stocks that several Democratic senators and their spouses apparently held.

“The reality is that Dr. Price’s 20-year career as an orthopedic surgeon and a fiscal conservative make him uniquely qualified to lead HHS,” transition spokesman Phil Blando said in a statement.

The transition team previously said that Price has fully complied with federal laws and ethics rules.

Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a longtime ally and colleague of Price’s, called the Democratic press conference “nothing more than a stunt” aimed “to detract from the fact that Obamacare is broken beyond repair.”

“It is a shame that Tom, a highly talented health care professional and dedicated public servant, is being subjected to petty partisan attacks by Democrats,” the Republican said. Isakson sits on both Senate committees that will mull Price’s nomination and has vowed to work as his chief defender.

Democrats on Thursday opened their press conference with a mention of the House GOP’s aborted attempt to defang the Office of Congressional Ethics earlier this week. Schumer implied that congressional Republicans were devaluing ethics in a bid to help their own.

Confirmation hearings

Democrats have short-listed Price as one of eight Trump nominees against whom they plan to fight the hardest in the weeks ahead.

But a change Democrats made to Senate rules in 2013 has now stripped them of their ability to filibuster nominees. They can still slow-walk the confirmation process, though, stretching out the Senate’s consideration for each Cabinet-level pick for days, which collectively could strangle business in the chamber for months.

“I am in the process of negotiating with Senator (Mitch) McConnell,” Schumer said Thursday, referring to the Senate Republican leader. “We have certain areas of leverage. We hope we don’t have to use them.”

Democrats in recent days unveiled a list of demands they’d like to see met for Trump’s most contentious executive picks: years of paperwork and tax returns, multiday hearings for many nominees and scheduling the hearings to spread out across several weeks.

That isn’t ideal for Republicans, who have a long list of priorities they’d like to act on during Trump’s first 100 days in office. GOP senators say they let through seven of Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominees on the first day of his administration in 2009 and that Democrats should do the same now.

“Once the voters had spoken, we accepted their verdict, and we worked cooperatively to see a smooth transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration,” Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said of Republicans in 2009. “I believe it’s our duty to do that.”

In recent days, Senate Republicans have signaled their intent to ignore Democrats’ demands and blaze forward on confirming Price and other nominees. Several picks are expected to be subject to confirmation votes on Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration.

One of Price’s two confirmation hearings has already been scheduled. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel will consider the health nomination on Jan. 18.

The Senate Finance Committee, the panel that will ultimately vote on Price’s appointment, has yet to schedule its hearing since it is still waiting for conflict-of-interest documentation on Price from the federal Office of Government Ethics, according to the panel’s Democrats. If Price’s nomination advances through the Finance Committee, it will then go to the full Senate for consideration.

Price is not expected to resign his 6th Congressional District seat until after he is greenlighted by the Senate. At that point, state law requires Gov. Nathan Deal to call for a special election at least 30 days after the vacancy opens.