Tom Price likely to sail through Senate despite Democratic scrutiny

Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price hasn’t faced real political competition since he was first elected to his suburban Atlanta congressional seat in 2004.

That will change very quickly Wednesday, when the Roswell Republican will be subjected to the grilling of a lifetime in the first of two Senate confirmation hearings to be Donald Trump’s health chief.

A deeply conservative policy wonk with a cool-headed reputation, Price is looking to become the first physician in 24 years to lead the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services and take advantage of his congressional connections to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Senate Democrats, however, are preparing to make him sweat. They don't have the votes to stop his nomination but loathe Price's past proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act and overhaul safety-net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. They want to make his path through the chamber as painful as possible.

As such, Price’s turn in front of the C-SPAN cameras and two-dozen members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to be a grinding, all-day affair.

“This is one where (Democrats) are going to want to make him bleed a little bit,” said Jim Manley, previously a longtime aide to former Democratic U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Edward Kennedy. “He’s got a series of proposals that Democrats think are highly harmful to millions of Americans.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans, including Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, are looking to ferry along Price’s confirmation as seamlessly as possible.

Democrats’ game plan

There are few Trump Cabinet nominees with targets on their back quite as large as Price’s.

While few Democrats will say Price isn’t qualified for the position, they fault the seven-term congressman for advancing Republican health care policies they see as harmful and extreme.

The problem is that Democrats gave up their biggest piece of leverage back when they were in charge in 2013, erasing their ability to filibuster executive nominees they don’t like.

One of the only weapons left in their arsenal is to use the court of public opinion to persuade Republicans to abandon their party and vote against Trump’s nominees. Ground zero is in the Senate’s confirmation hearings.

In the case of Price, they plan to do that by framing his past health proposals in apocalyptic terms, particularly when it comes to women, children and seniors. Shortly after the election, Senate Democrats rolled out a new messaging campaign that accused the Republican Party of plotting a “war on seniors.”

Manley said to expect that rhetoric to continue during Price’s public vetting.

“I think Democrats will try to exploit his views, especially when it comes to Obamacare, and pointing out that his policies will either take away access to health care for millions of Americans or do nothing to provide additional health care,” he said.

Democratic members of the health committee include liberal firebrands Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as former vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine.

Democrats are also likely to take aim at Price’s stock trades, contrasting it with Trump’s “drain the swamp” push.

The party's senior leaders have seized on a report from The Wall Street Journal that Price traded $300,000 in shares of health-related companies while sponsoring legislation that could affect those businesses, raising the specter of insider trading.

It's a hard allegation to pin down, ethics experts previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Democrats are still expected to raise the question Wednesday.

“Whether the law was actually broken, whether there were 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,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said earlier this month.

Price to play defense

Price has not spoken publicly about his nomination since Trump announced his selection shortly after Thanksgiving, a common strategy for Cabinet picks. A spokesman for the transition team did not respond to requests for comment or for an interview with Price.

Price has spent the past several weeks meeting one on one with members of the health committee. On Wednesday, he’ll seek to showcase his mastery of health care policy and pet issues of senators on the panel. Otherwise, he’ll likely try to be as inconspicuous and uncontroversial as possible.

Prep sessions with Trump’s transition team, known as “murder boards,” are designed to train him for likely lines of questioning from Democrats.

"It's not as though he'd be unfamiliar with the attacks on the conservative viewpoints on Obamacare or his own bill for that matter," said Ellen Carmichael, a former aide to the lawmaker and GOP strategist, referring to Price's replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act. "This is his everyday bread-and-butter policy stuff, what he's spent his life doing."

Regarding his finances, the transition team has said that Price has always been in full compliance of the law, something the Cabinet candidate is likely to repeat. (Price recently signed off on an ethics plan for avoiding future conflicts of interest in which he would shed stock in more than 40 companies and step down as a delegate for the American Medical Association.)

Price has several allies on the Senate health committee, including the panel’s chairman, who has spoken highly of him, and several others whom he’s worked with over the years. Perhaps his most strategic backer is Isakson, who sits on both committees that will ultimately vet Price’s nomination.

Isakson has called Democratic colleagues on Price’s behalf in recent weeks, urging them to keep an open mind and reminding them that he supported President Barack Obama’s most recent health secretary pick.

“Hopefully that will lessen the intensity that some of them might have to probe Tom unfairly,” Isakson said in a recent interview. “I’m going to be sitting through both hearings. They’re going to have to look me in the eye when they do it. Hopefully I’ve diminished some of the fire in doing that.”

Carmichael said Democrats are “delusional” if they think three Republicans will abandon Price, the number they need to kill the nomination.

“One of the things that works in Dr. Price’s favor is that he’s got this affable, gentle disposition that’s very characteristic of a lot of physicians,” she said. “That works well for him because there’s such an authenticity and a decency about him. People perceive that, and I think the Democrats very much risk overplaying their hands on that.”

After the Senate health panel vets Price, the chamber’s Finance Committee will take its crack before his nomination moves to the full Senate. Barring an eleventh-hour surprise, Price is expected to be confirmed on a party-line vote.

“I think a lot of their strategy is what I’m sure Republicans have done in the past,” Trent Lott, the onetime Republican Senate majority leader, said of Democrats regarding Trump’s Cabinet picks. “They may not think they can actually defeat them, but they’ll try to rough them up a little bit to try to affect their conduct once they are confirmed.”