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Confirmation appears clear for Georgia’s Price as health secretary

Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price appears on track to be confirmed as head of Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, but it’s still unclear how many headaches unhappy Senate Democrats will create for the Roswell Republican.

Math and recent history indicate Price’s path to lead the sprawling department of roughly 80,000 employees is a fairly straightforward one. Nonetheless, many top Democrats bristled at Trump’s pick, which was formally announced by the New Yorker’s transition team Tuesday morning.

Price “is going to get a lot of very strong and very thorough questions about the kinds of things that he has proposed,” Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “And if he sticks with them, I think there’s a chance that his nomination will fail.”

The reality, however, is that Democrats in 2013 removed what would have been their greatest procedural tool to block Price’s nomination, essentially guaranteeing they will need to swallow the Cabinet pick in the new year.

Frustrated by Senate Republicans blocking many of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominations, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., employed a rules change forbidding the filibuster on all executive nominees.

That move, known as the “nuclear option” for how controversial it was and is, now means Price will only need the support of 51 senators to become the 23rd secretary of health and human services.

Securing that level of support should be a relatively easy undertaking for Price, since there will likely be 52 Republicans in the chamber come January. (A Republican reportedly has the edge in Louisiana’s Senate runoff, which will take place Dec. 10.)

Senators also tend to be relatively deferential when it comes to Cabinet nominees who previously served in Congress.

Democratic criticism

Republicans, however, will need to stick together, particularly if Democrats make an effort to slow-walk Price’s nomination, which is the left’s most likely tool for gumming up Price’s confirmation.

Discussions about such a strategy did not appear to materialize Tuesday. Only two Democrats, U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, announced firm plans to oppose Price’s nomination.

But Democrats weren’t shy voicing their displeasure Tuesday.

They zeroed in on Price’s past proposals to kill federal funding for Planned Parenthood and replace Obamacare with age-based tax credits. Most, however, offered few promises regarding Price beyond closely scrutinizing his record and asking tough questions of him during private meetings and his confirmation hearings.

“Like every nominee, I’ll give him the opportunity to come over and talk to us, but I have some very serious concerns,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, one of two panels that will vet Price.

Senate Democratic leaders did indicate Tuesday that they plan to use GOP plans to overhaul Medicare, which have been touted by Price and House Speaker Paul Ryan, as a rallying cry in the new Congress.

“Between this nomination of an avowed Medicare opponent to serve as HHS secretary and Republicans here in Washington threatening to privatize Medicare, it’s clear that Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year,” Schumer said.

“We are going to fight tooth and nail any attempt to privatize, voucherize or any other ‘ize’ you can think of when it comes to Medicare,” he added.

Confirmation process

GOP senators, including Georgia’s Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, quickly lined up behind Price.

“I’m excited for the country, excited for Georgia, for Tom,” Perdue said in an interview Tuesday. “I think he’ll do a great job in that position.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Price “the right person to lead the charge” against Obamacare. The Kentucky Republican said the chamber’s first order of business in 2017 is to quickly dismantle the health care law and confirm Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

Indeed, the two Senate committees with jurisdiction over the Department of Health and Human Services could move to vet Price before Trump is even sworn in as president on Jan. 20, potentially positioning the Senate to vote on his nomination as soon as Inauguration Day.

Tennessee U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who leads the Senate health committee, said Price is “very well-qualified” and that he expects he would be confirmed “without much trouble.”

The Senate Finance Committee is the panel that will bring Price’s nomination up for an initial vote. Cabinet nominees traditionally meet with members of the committee, submit a questionnaire and copies of their tax returns before the panel’s confirmation hearing begins.

Georgia’s Isakson, a member of the Finance Committee, called Price “the very best person that could’ve been picked” for the position. He vowed to take on any Democrat looking to hold up Price’s nomination.

“They’re going to have to get over me to do it because I’m on the Finance Committee and I’m going to be in Tom’s corner all the time,” he said.

Price’s Cabinet nomination also won praise from Gov. Nathan Deal.

“It’s a great accolade for Tom Price individually and for state of Georgia as a whole,” the Republican said Tuesday. “He’s a very qualified and capable individual. His background and experience in both the state Legislature and the Congress equips him for the job.”

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, laid out the challenge ahead for Price regarding the Affordable Care Act.

“Tom has been a vocal critic, and now he will be responsible for fixing everything that he’s complaining about,” Holcomb said. “He will own the problem and will be held accountable. I wish him well because the health care of millions of Americans is at stake.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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