The Senate Finance Committee advanced Alex Azar’s nomination to lead the Health and Human Services Department on Wednesday, nearly four months after President Trump’s first secretary resigned amid questions about his pricey business travel.
The 15-12 vote fell largely along party lines and set the stage for Mr. Azar’s confirmation before the full Senate.
Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, joined every Republicans in supporting Mr. Azar, though other Democrats continued to cry foul, saying the nominee’s decade as a pharmaceutical executive makes him ill-equipped to address rising drug prices. They also say he cannot be trusted to uphold Obamacare while it remains the law of the land.
Yet committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said he’d be hard-pressed to think of a more capable nominee. A lawyer by training, Mr. Azar served in the Bush administration and has a deep understanding of HHS operations and regulatory authority.
His decade at Eli Lilly, a prominent drugmaker, will give him insight into a flawed pricing system that’s driving up prices, according to the chairman.
“By any objective account Mr. Azar is very well qualified for this important position,” said Mr. Hatch, Utah Republican.
As HHS secretary, Mr. Azar would be in charge of steering a sprawling, $1-trillion agency that regulates and approves drugs, combats disease and runs public health programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
He would also be filling the post left vacant by Tom Price, a former congressman who resigned as secretary in September amid revelations he used expensive charter planes for business travel.
Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, predicted that Mr. Azar would fare no better.
“Like Secretary [Tom] Price before him, who was forced to resign in disgrace, Mr. Azar has left no doubt he will defer to the Trump agenda of putting politics ahead of families’ health, and ideology ahead of science,” Ms. Murray said. “I will oppose his nomination and urge all of my colleagues to do the same.”
Senate Democrats only hold 49 votes, however, so they cannot block the nominee if Republicans hold firm.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t scheduled a confirmation vote, though aides said it won’t be this week, as lawmakers work on a reauthorization of a federal snooping program and a stopgap bill to keep the federal government open.
Wednesday’s panel vote was somewhat unusual. A morning roll call had to be delayed, after the committee didn’t have enough senators present to vote before a hearing on trade.
Instead, senators trickled into a small room in the Capitol to cast their votes after their party lunches.