Republicans who lead a key Senate panel suspended their own rules Wednesday and advanced President Trump’s picks to lead the Treasury and Health and Human Services departments unilaterally, saying they had no choice after Democrats boycotted committee votes for a second day in a row.
The Senate Finance Committee advanced Steven Mnuchin to lead Treasury and Rep. Tom Price as health secretary on a pair of 14-0 votes without any Democrats present.
The votes were supposed to occur on Tuesday. Yet Democrats derailed the markup by refusing to show up, which meant the panel didn’t have the quorum needed to do business. At least one Democrat must be present.
They failed to show for the rescheduled markup early Wednesday, leading to the rule change.
“They have nobody to blame but themselves,” Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, said.
Democrats said Mr. Price, Georgia Republican, wasn’t straight with them about his ability to secure stock in an Australian medical company at a discounted price for select investors, even as he served as a leading health policy guru in Congress.
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, also said he couldn’t support Mr. Mnuchin because the nominee publicly denied that OneWest Bank engaged in the “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents under his leadership. Mr. Wyden said court documents and testimony seemed to show otherwise.
“Despite repeated requests by members of this Committee, both nominees have yet to answer important questions that impact the American people,” panel Democrats wrote in the letter to Mr. Hatch. “Further, we have significant concern that both Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Price gave inaccurate and misleading testimony and responses to questions to the Committee. These cabinet nominees should answer basic questions that the American people deserve answers to before moving forward.”
Mr. Hatch chastised Democrats, calling the claims about Mr. Price “misleading and dramatically overstated” — the nominee had said he was part of a select group of investors — and that there is no working definition of “robo-signing.”
“It is a vague label casually thrown around to apply to a broad set of practices,” Mr. Hatch said.
The chairman said Republicans had “serious disagreements” with former President Barack Obama and didn’t like his first Treasury secretary, whose nomination fight was roiled by reports he failed to pay certain payroll taxes. Yet Republicans showed up and voted on the nominee anyway, Mr. Hatch said.
He also said Mr. Price has languished in the Senate longer than either of Mr. Obama’s picks to lead HHS.
Republicans and Mr. Trump are counting on Mr. Price, an orthopedic surgeon from the Atlanta suburbs, to quarterback their No. 1 priority this year — repealing and replacing Obamacare.
The party is using a fast-track budget process to repeal and replace as much of the Affordable Care Act as they can, while avoiding a Democratic filibuster, by this spring.
Then, they plan to take up replacement bills that will require buy-in from at least eight Senate Democrats to advance, while hoping Mr. Trump uses his executive action to smooth the transition.
For now, the GOP is struggling to coalesce around a path forward. One sticking point is whether to retain an array of taxes Obamacare imposed to pay for its coverage provisions, so Republicans can fund their own plans.
Mr. Hatch on Wednesday said the taxes must go.
“Some have argued that we should keep all or some of them in place and use them to pay for our eventual replacement package,” he said in prepared remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “My view is this: After spending seven years talking about the harm being caused by these taxes, it’s difficult to switch gears now and decide that they’re fine so long as they’re being used to pay for our health care bill. All of the Obamacare taxes need to go as part of the repeal process.”