WASHINGTON – Senators voted early Friday to confirm Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price as the 23rd secretary of health and human services, elevating the former orthopedic surgeon to a Cabinet-level position that will be at the crux of efforts to remake health care policy in America.
The 52-47 party-line vote was cast shortly after 2 a.m. Every Republican supported the seven-term congressman, while all Democrats and both left-leaning Independents voted to reject him, making Price the most polarizing health and human services nominee in at least 40 years.
Friday’s events capped a whirlwind journey for the Roswell Republican that vaulted him from the wonky chairman of the House Budget Committee to the country’s top health official in roughly 10 weeks.
He is expected to quickly vacate his 6th District House seat in order to be sworn into his new Trump administration position, allowing Gov. Nathan Deal to schedule a date for a special election to replace him.
Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided over Price’s nomination from the moment it was announced shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday.
But while the rhetoric surrounding his stock trades and views on health care was frequently partisan and heated, it lacked the same emotional rawness that characterized consideration of Jeff Sessions’ attorney general nomination earlier this week.
Instead, Republicans and Democrats talked past one another Thursday as they rehashed old arguments surrounding the 62-year-old’s record on the Senate floor.
Eager to begin unraveling the Affordable Care Act, GOP senators framed Price as an ideal candidate to take the lead in such an effort.
“We should take comfort in his nomination to this important position because he has years of service and years of experience working within our nation’s health care system,” said Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Price built his medical career in Atlanta, completing his residency at Emory University before opening his own orthopedic clinic and working at Grady Memorial Hospital. He cut his political teeth as an officer in the Medical Association of Georgia, a role that helped him win an open seat in the state Senate and eventually rise to become the first Republican majority leader in modern Georgia history.
Price’s work experience was never the issue for Senate Democrats. They instead focused on his past health care proposals, which they framed as extreme.
"Congressman Price's record is perfectly clear," said Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "He wants to destroy fundamental protections that millions of Americans depend on for their health and economic security. And frankly he isn't very subtle about it."
They zeroed in on his past Obamacare replacement proposal, which they said would put health care out of reach for many Americans, and previous plans to overhaul safety net programs such as Medicare.
Bernie Sanders said Price's past positions on entitlements clash with Trump's campaign promises.
“He ran a campaign in which he said over and over again, ‘I am a different type of Republican. I am not going to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” Sanders, I-Vt., said. “Yet he has nominated individuals like Congressman Price who have spent their entire career doing the exact opposite.”
Democrats also highlighted Price’s stock trades, which they said toed congressional insider trading laws and were misrepresented in Price’s testimony before two Senate committees.
“The stock trades Congressman Price made while working on healthcare policy raise serious ethical and legal questions that deserve further inquiry,” said Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who previously pushed for ethics investigations into the timing of Price’s stock trades.
Price and President Donald Trump’s transition team have maintained that he has done nothing wrong.
Senate Republicans brushed off Democrats’ criticism.
"As the Chairman of the Ethics Committee … I know what we have to submit and make public," said Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who worked behind-the-scenes to advocate for his House successor. "I know what we don't. And every single thing he's been accused of doing is just information taken out of his own disclosures that anybody who owns a computer can get today to make it look like he's bad and a bad guy.”
Utah Republican Orrin Hatch summed it up a little more bluntly.
“Some of the phony arguments that have been brought up are just pathetic,” he said.
Price’s new position gives him vast control over a sprawling federal agency with 80,000 employees and a roughly $1 trillion annual budget. He’ll have significant power with which to shape the regulations that help make the health care system function. His close relationship with Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republicans will also make him invaluable to Trump as he looks to build support for an Obamacare replacement plan.
Price told senators at his confirmation hearings that his experience as a doctor helped shape his philosophy when it comes to health care.
Many of his former patients “were never more angry and frustrated than when they realized that there was someone other than themselves and/or their physician making medical decisions on their behalf,” he recounted.
Price said he also noticed there were often “more individuals within our office who were dealing with paperwork, insurance filings and government regulations than there were individuals actually seeing and treating patients.”
“It was in those moments that it became crystal clear that our health care system was losing focus on the number one priority – the individual patient,” Price said.
Throughout his career, Price has also advanced policies favorable to the health care industry, which has in kind donated millions to his political campaigns, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
A broad field of more than a dozen candidates is already lining up to replace Price. The contest will be among the first congressional races since Trump’s victory.