JOHN YANG: On Capitol Hill today, it was another marathon round of confirmation hearings for President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. His head to pick the Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia congressman Tom Price, took his turn before the Senate Finance Committee.
Just like last week, the physician lawmaker faced tough questioning on what is going to happen as the administration moves to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Last week, Mr. Trump signed an executive order allowing the administration to delay, waive or change parts of the law that are too much of a burden. Senators wanted to know what that means, starting with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.
SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: Will you guarantee that no one will lose coverage under the executive order?
REP. TOM PRICE, Health and Human Services Secretary Nominee: I guarantee you that the individuals that lost coverage under the Affordable Care Act, we will commit to making certain that they don’t lose coverage under whatever replacement plan comes forward. That’s the commitment that I provide to you.
SEN. RON WYDEN: The question again is, will anyone lose coverage? And you answered to something I didn’t ask. Will you commit to not implementing the order until the replacement plan is in place?
REP. TOM PRICE: What I commit to the American people is to keep patients at the center of health care. And what that means to me is making certain that every single American has access to affordable health coverage that will provide the highest-quality health care that the world can provide.
SEN. RON WYDEN: I’m going to close by way of saying that what the congressman is saying is that the order could go into effect before there is a replacement plan. And independent experts say that this is going to destroy the market on which millions of working families buy health coverage.
And on the questions that I ask, will the congressman commit that nobody will be worse off, nobody will lose coverage, we didn’t get an answer.
JOHN YANG: Senators also tried find out what role Price was playing in crafting the president’s health care alternative, but didn’t have much success.
Not far from Price’s hearing, the Senate Budget Committee grilled the president’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget.
Lisa Desjardins has that story.
LISA DESJARDINS: Congressman Mick Mulvaney was introduced at this morning’s hearing as a vigilant budget hawk. The staunch conservative is President Trump’s choice to lead the White House Budget Office.
REP. MICK MULVANEY, Budget Director Nominee: I believe, as a matter of principle, that the debt is a problem that must be addressed sooner rather than later. I also know that fundamental changes are necessary in the way Washington spends and taxes if we truly want a healthy economy.
LISA DESJARDINS: Mulvaney was elected as a South Carolina representative in 2010 in the Tea Party wave. He told senators today that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need significant changes to be preserved for the future.
But Mr. Trump used different words when he spoke to the conservative news site The Daily Signal in May of 2015.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m not going to cut Social Security, like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.
LISA DESJARDINS: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Mulvaney on the contrast.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt.: Will you tell the president of the United States, Mr. President, keep your word, be honest with the American people, do not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?
REP. MICK MULVANEY: The only thing I know to do is to tell the president the truth. And the truth is that, if we do not reform these programs that are so important to your constituents in Vermont, and to mine in South Carolina, I believe in nine or 10 years, the Medicaid trust fund is empty. In roughly in 17 or 18 years, the Social Security trust fund is empty.
LISA DESJARDINS: The sustainability of Social Security also came up in an exchange between Mulvaney and fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Would you agree with me that, for younger workers, they may have to work longer before they enter the program, to save the program?
REP. MICK MULVANEY: I have already told my children to prepare for exactly that.
LISA DESJARDINS: Mulvaney said he doesn’t want to cut entitlements for people already receiving benefits. And he said he agrees with President Trump’s plan to boost the Pentagon’s budget.
That issue and Mulvaney’s record on the military came up during his second hearing this afternoon, before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Arizona: What’s the highest priority, reducing the debt or rebuilding the military?
REP. MICK MULVANEY: The number one priority of the United States government is to defend the nation.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: That’s nice to hear that you believe they’re important, because you have spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against our military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important.
LISA DESJARDINS: The nominee was also forced to answer for his failure years ago to pay more than $15,000 in payroll taxes for a household worker. Mulvaney said it was a mistake.
REP. MICK MULVANEY: It was a young woman who did not live with us, did not teach the children, did not cook or clean. She helped my wife with the children.
And we did not withhold federal taxes. And, honestly, I didn’t think about it again until December. It was my responsibility. But once it was brought to my attention, I did the only thing I know to do, which is simply be straightforward about it, admit the problem and then try to fix it.
LISA DESJARDINS: Some Democrats have said that error is disqualifying. And nominees have confronted similar issues in the past. Two of President Clinton’s picks for attorney general, Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird, withdrew for a failure to pay taxes on household help.
That led to revelations that two already confirmed secretaries, Ron Brown and Federico Peña, had also failed to pay employee taxes. And in 2009, tax concerns sank Tom Daschle, President Obama’s choice for the Health and Human Services Department. But Tim Geithner was confirmed as treasury secretary that year, despite not paying all of his personal taxes.
And Mulvaney was also pressed on the 2013 government shutdown. He was one of the conservatives who said it was worth not compromising and allowing the showdown to make their point about the Affordable Care Act, which he wanted to repeal.
One thing, though, Republicans say, despite all of the pressing from Democrats, they think all of these nominees will ultimately be confirmed, John, even as we see some of the votes continue to be postponed in hearings. John, it’s really a question of Republicans, they say, of not if, but when.
JOHN YANG: Lisa, one big nomination that President Trump says he is going to make next week is to the Supreme Court. There was a meeting at the White House with Senate leaders to talk about it.
What are you hearing about that meeting?
LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right.
We’re hearing it was a short meeting. I have multiple sources, Republican and Democrat, telling me it lasted about 30 minutes. From the Republican side, we get one version. Chuck Grassley sent out a statement to us saying that it was a step in the right direction, that it was productive and frank.
But, John, Democrats say simply that it was a chance for them to state their belief that this Supreme Court nominee must be from the mainstream. How I read that, both sides are honestly gearing for a potential very large fight.
And talking to senators in the hallway today, John, you could tell Republicans are brace themselves for the possibility that they may not be able to get 60 votes, which is the requirement right now for a Supreme Court nominee. And they seem to be considering a discussion over changing that rule down to 50. That will be a monumental change, and it seems like it might be ahead.
JOHN YANG: And, Lisa, give us an update on what is also ahead on the big Trump goal on the Hill, which is to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
LISA DESJARDINS: Right.
We have some deadlines coming up on that in just a couple of days. On Friday, that’s the deadline for committees to put in their language essentially for what the repeal should look like. That’s not the replacement. The replacement, meanwhile, will also be a huge topic of conversation, perhaps the biggest topic of conversation, when House and Senate Republicans go to Philadelphia starting tomorrow for their retreat.
This is going to be where they lay out their game plan for the entire year. And at the very top of the agenda, Republicans will try to work out amongst themselves how they want to deal with the Obamacare replacement.
JOHN YANG: And another Trump priority that a lot of people thought the Democrats on the Hill might be able to work with them on was the infrastructure project. And I understand that the Democrats had something to say about that today.
LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right.
Democrats agree, we also want to expand American infrastructure and do more on it. But that’s where the agreement ends. Democrats’ proposal today is a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. The difference, it seems, John is potentially how they would pay for it. Democrats say they would like to close tax loopholes.
We’re waiting to see what President Trump proposes, how large his infrastructure plan is. But already Republicans say on the Hill say no way to the way Democrats are going. They instead want just a straight spending plan. Republicans want to have tax credits that would go more to businesses, rather than just hiring for paving highways and such.
So they agree on one thing, that America needs more roads and bridges, but they certainly disagree on how to do it.
JOHN YANG: And, Lisa, the Republicans complained a lot about President Obama’s executive actions. We have had a lot of executive actions from President Trump so far. What’s been the reaction on the Hill?
LISA DESJARDINS: This has been such an interesting storyline today, John.
For the most part, Republicans are of course happy with some of these executive actions, things like the Keystone pipeline in Canada. That’s something that they have pushed for.
But, if you look at the details of these executive actions, specifically another one on pipelines, today, President Trump asked the Commerce Department to come up with a plan that would ensure that pipelines all be made from American-built products, so American steel, essentially.
That’s something he talked about in the campaign, but it’s something that House Speaker Ryan himself took out of a bill formally. Not all Republicans like that idea. They’re not all sure it’s good for business.
JOHN YANG: Lisa Desjardins, just outside the House chamber, thank you very much.