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Senate Confirmation Hearings: Week 2

Lawmakers will question Rick Perry, the nominee for energy secretary, and Steven Mnuchin, the nominee for treasury secretary.

Rick Perry, the nominee for energy secretary, will testify before a Senate panel on Thursday. Kathy Willens / AP

Senate confirmation hearings continue on Thursday, as Donald Trump’s inauguration is just one day away.

On the docket are Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Energy, and Steven Mnuchin, the nominee for treasury secretary. Perry will testify before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and the Senate Finance Committee will hear from Mnuchin.

We’ll bring you the latest updates from Capitol Hill as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:


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Mnuchin Explains the Border Tax

                                                                                                                                            J. Scott Applewhite

President-elect Donald Trump has famously admonished companies on Twitter for their plans to move factories to Mexico, prompting a number of companies to tout their plans to invest in U.S. operations. The president-elect has even threatened to hit companies with a 35 percent “border tax” if they try to make products abroad and then import them for American consumers.

His aggressive strategy has left many wondering who, exactly, will get hit with that tax, considering that dozens of American companies have been doing it for decades. Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wanted to know if working-class Americans can expect to pay more for shoes, clothes, and appliances that are made in Mexico. “Could you tell the American people what products would be subject to this tax?” Wyden asked.

Mnuchin bristled, and denied that Trump’s plan is actually a border tax. “What he has suggested is that, for certain companies that move jobs, there may be repercussions to that. He's not suggesting in any way an across-the-board 35 percent border tax.”

So what products won’t be taxed? Wyden wanted to know.

“Again, I think when he's referred to a border tax, he's referred to a small number of companies that have moved their jobs or are moving their jobs, putting products back into the United States and taxing them. So he's in no way contemplating a broad 35 percent border tax. That couldn't be further from anything that he'd possibly consider,” Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin Wavers on Questions Involving Trump's Foreign Debt

                                                                                                                       J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Several hours into his confirmation hearing, treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin appeared willing to work with Republicans and Democrats in Congress on nearly every one of their concerns. Lowering the corporate tax rate: absolutely. Tax breaks for middle-income Americans: definitely. Punishing countries that manipulate their currencies: yes. Making sure the IRS is well funded: of course.

His eagerness to please wavered only a few times, such as the moment Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, began to question him about President-elect Donald Trump’s business interests abroad, and more particularly, the unknown amount of debt he has with foreign lenders.

“Isn't it true that a lot of [Trump’s] debt is held by foreign interests?” McCaskill asked.

“I don't know, I have read it in the papers,” he answered.

“Do you think you should know that, as someone who runs the Committee on Foreign Investments, if we are talking about the commander-in-chief? As secretary of the treasury, should you know what percentage of his debt—I'm told by people familiar with his business that it is a huge percentage of his debt—that is held by foreign interests?” McCaskill asked.

“As I said—if I am confirmed—I assure you, I will make sure the requirements of the constitution are upheld,” he said. “I think you have a valid point about foreign debt and understanding foreign things. If I'm confirmed, I will research that and get back to you.”

But McCaskill wanted more from him.

“What I want is to get a commitment from you today that you will report to this committee what percentage of the debt against the Trump enterprise is held by foreign interests. That is your job as the secretary of treasury. I want your commitment that you will report to this committee as soon as you are able to get that information from the new president.”

Mnuchin wouldn’t give her that.

“I am not making the commitment today to report to the committee on anything. What I am willing to do is—to the extent I am confirmed—I am willing to speak to the [committee] chairman and make sure that whatever the committee thinks it needs, I will discuss with the president.”

“In your job as treasury secretary, when determining national security interests based on foreign investment, the American people need to know how much debt is owed by the Trump business to foreign entities, and if that could have a direct impact on our national security,” McCaskill said.

“I think you have asked some interesting questions on which I will follow-up,” Mnuchin replied, before moving to the next line of questioning.

Mnuchin Supports Raising the Debt Ceiling

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Paying off America’s $13 trillion in debt has been a big issue for President-elect Donald Trump. Last year, he suggested he would try to renegotiate with creditors, instead of raising the debt ceiling to pass a budget. His remarks prompted confusion and alarm over how creditors would react, and whether that meant there would be another government shutdown if lawmakers can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling.

Senator Michael Bennet expressed concern about how Steven Mnuchin would advise Trump if he is confirmed as treasury secretary. He listed the impacts from the 2011 government shutdown: a ratings agency downgraded the nation's deficit for the first time in history, and the stock market fell and did not recover for almost a year. “It was completely a self-inflicted wound on the American economy. It hurt retirement savings and dealt a blow to job growth and job creation,” Bennet said during Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing. He then asked Mnuchin if he agreed with Trump’s view that the president can renegotiate the country’s debt and avoid a default because the Treasury Department can print more money.

“The president-elect has made it perfectly clear that honoring the U.S. debt is the most important thing. I hope that when we get to the point—if I am confirmed—that we will not go through another one of these issues because there are certain things that I would have the power to postpone,” Mnuchin said.

“Can you then commit to working with Congress to pass a clean debt ceiling?” Bennet asked.

“I will commit to absolutely work with the Congress, the House, and the Senate so we do not get to the last minute and run out of money,” Mnuchin answered.

“Is that a yes? We will pass a clean debt ceiling?” Bennet asked.

“I do not know your technical issue of what is ‘a clean debt ceiling.’” Mnuchin said.

“The debt ceiling.” Bennet said.

“Let me be clear, I would like us to raise the debt ceiling sooner rather than later,” Mnuchin said.

“That’s good enough for me,” Bennet replied.

The government is currently funded through April.

Perry Will Consider Iran Deal Once He's Had a Confidential Briefing

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Donald Trump has called the Iran nuclear deal “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Plenty of Democrats disagree with that position, including Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who asked Rick Perry Thursday to make the case to Trump for preserving the pact, should he be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Energy.

“I would urge you to advise the president-elect to not get out of this deal—I think that would be bad for our country,” he said. “As energy secretary, you’ll be having the president’s ear.”

Whether the U.S. should back out of the agreement may be more of a concern for secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, though current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist, was a key negotiator. But the Department of Energy is charged with monitoring Iran’s adherence to the deal, so Perry would have some oversight.

Perry said he didn’t feel comfortable commenting until after he’s had a confidential briefing on the agreement, but that he’d take his thoughts to Trump once he does. “Message delivered, sir,” he told Franken.

Sanders Hits Again on Climate, This Time With Perry

Bernie Sanders on Wednesday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Yesterday, Senator Bernie Sanders laid into Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, over his views on climate change.  On Thursday, he asked Rick Perry a similar line of questions.

“We are in danger of spending god knows how many billions of dollars to repair the damage done by climate change,” Sanders said. “I’m asking you if you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a crisis.”

Perry, who has emphasized his desire to balance climate reforms with the economic concerns of business, didn’t bite. He instead cited environmental gains made in Texas during his terms as governor. “Having an academic discussion, whether it’s with scientists or with you, is an interesting exercise,” he said. “But do I have a record of affecting the climate and the world? And the answer is yes.

“Don’t you think that is a good thing?” he asked Sanders.

“I think what would be a better thing is for you to say, right now, that you recognize we have a global crisis,” Sanders replied. But he moved on.

Mnuchin Says He Didn't Avoid Paying Taxes, Promises to Close Loopholes

                                                                                                                                 J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee grilled Steven Mnuchin, the nominee for treasury secretary, about whether or not he would work to close tax loopholes that currently allow wealthy Americans to shelter their money in offshore accounts without paying taxes.

It was an awkward conversation, given The New York Times report on Thursday that Mnuchin had failed to disclose $100 million in assets to the committee, and didn’t mention his role as director of an investment fund located in a tax haven, the Cayman Islands.

“Did you use the Cayman Islands corporation to avoid paying taxes and do you support closing tax loopholes that very wealthy people have consistently used in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes?” asked Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan.

“Let me be clear, I did not use a Cayman Islands entity in any way to avoid taxes for myself. I’ve paid U.S. taxes on all that income, okay? There was no benefit in the entity for me, it was set up to accommodate nonprofits and pension funds that want to invest through offshore and a certain number...” Mnuchin said before Stabenow cut him off.

“You help others avoid taxes,” she said.

Mnuchin defended his actions, saying that the organizations and companies he worked with followed the law. Then he criticized companies who move their headquarters to tax havens like the Cayman Islands, while still doing most of their business in the United States, which is known as a corporate inversion.

“They are perfectly legal and hurt the American workers here in the hedge-fund world, these are set up to make the accountants rich and I would like to work with the IRS to close these tax issues that make no sense to make sure we are collecting the proper amount of taxes,” he said.

“Would you support closing the loopholes?” Stabenow asked.

“I would support changing the tax laws to make sure they are simpler and more effective,” he answered.

When pressed again by another senator, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mnuchin responded: “The short answer is, yes. As I said before, I think I would work with the IRS and with Congress. As I have said, it makes no sense that we have all these requirements to set up these offshore entities, which did not benefit me, but did benefit certain nonprofits and pensions. We should address the issues for nonprofits and pensions and understand why they need to invest through these offshore funds...but I commit to work with your office, senator, to make sure we fix the system.”

Rick Perry's 'Saturday Night Live' Sound Bite

There was a moment of levity just now between Rick Perry and Senator Al Franken, who Perry hoped would be “as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch” during their previous meeting. (While watching this clip, it’s worth remembering that years before he was ever elected to the Senate, the Minnesota lawmaker was a writer and performer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.)

Lawmakers Question Perry on Reported Budget Cuts

Carlos Barria/Reuters

On Thursday morning, The Hill reported that the incoming administration has planned deep cuts across the federal bureaucracy. Some of these affect the Department of Energy:

[The plan] would roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

During Rick Perry’s confirmation hearing, multiple senators voiced concern that Trump’s plans would gut the agency’s ability to pursue new technology. “The cuts are devastating, and they go to the heart of what we’re talking about today,” said Maine Senator Angus King. “This is absolutely nuts in terms of the future of energy of this country.”

Perry looked uncomfortable. “I have a rather interesting background of defending budgets,” he said. “Both from those who are in the know, and sometimes people…” King cut him off. “It’s hard for me to believe that the people making these cuts are in any kind of ‘know,’” he said.

“I’ll allow your statement to stand,” Perry said.

Perry Can't Commit on Keeping Leaders in Place at Nuclear Stockpile Agency

National Nuclear Security Administration Director Frank Klotz. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

There’s been some confusion about who is going to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy division charged with managing the U.S.’s nuclear weapon stockpile. It appears the Trump administration has not asked the existing leadership, headed by director Frank Klotz, to stay on the job until their replacements are confirmed by the Senate, as is customary. Critics say this could result in a dangerous discontinuity in the transfer of power for a vital security agency.

Rick Perry couldn’t give an answer one way or another to concerned senators, saying the decision on NNSA leadership is Trump’s to make. “That position is obviously one that has presidential nomination oversight,” he said. “I have sent the message that it would certainly be my desire to have that continuity. It is in the president-elect’s office now, and hopefully we will see that type of continuity.”

Republicans and Democrats Spar Over Mnuchin's Confirmation

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The confirmation hearing for Steven Mnuchin, the nominee for treasury secretary, got off to a rough start as Republicans accused Democrats of trying to obstruct his nomination with “stupid arguments” and Democrats firing back that they are merely taking part in a normal vetting process.

Before Mnuchin got a chance to deliver his opening remarks, Senator Pat Roberts jokingly offered a valium to Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who had just accused Mnuchin (among many other things) of “churning out foreclosures like Chinese factories churned out Trump suits and ties.”

The nomination of Mnuchin, a former Goldman-Sachs partner, has faced intense opposition from Democrats in Congress for his role as CEO of OneWest Bank, where he oversaw tens of thousand of foreclosures at the height of the financial crisis. At the time, Treasury Department regulators believed his bank was mishandling the foreclosures, and required him to fix the problems.

In his opening remarks, Mnuchin pushed back on accusations that he ran a “foreclosure machine,” saying that he turned around the failed IndyMac bank and saved thousands of jobs and mortgage loans. “Since I was first nominated to serve as treasury secretary, I have been maligned as taking advantage of others’ hardship in order to earn a buck. Nothing could be further from the truth. During the summer of 2008, I saw the devastation caused by the housing crisis when I watched people line up to get their life savings out of IndyMac bank. It was the middle of the financial crisis, and despite the global panic, I saw a way to save the bank,” he said, adding that his bank modified loans for more than 100,000 homeowners who risked foreclosures. If confirmed, the former Wall Street banker will oversee a department that supervises banks and enforces tax and finance laws.

In 2012, Treasury Department regulators believed that employees at Mnuchin’s bank were using “unsafe or unsound” methods in handling foreclosures, and they ordered bank executives to address the issue. The regulators said bank employees lied in foreclosure paperwork filed in state and federal courts about information related to the ownership of many home loans, money due on the loans, and the fees chargeable to the borrower, among other things. OneWest complied with the order, and ended up paying roughly $8.5 million in remediation to more than 10,000 customers for “errors that resulted in financial harm.” Now Mnuchin is preparing to take over the same department that had reprimanded him for his banking practices.

Perry on Climate Change Survey Sent to Energy Scientists: 'I Don't Approve Of It'

Carlos Barria/Reuters

In the early days following Donald Trump’s election, his transition team sent a 74-question survey to Department of Energy employees. Some points were innocuous enough, but many focused on climate change science, asking which programs were essential to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and requesting the names of employees who participated in conferences on global warming.

Democrats denounced the questionnaire. Trump’s team quickly backed away from the survey, and on Thursday, Rick Perry followed suit when asked about the questionnaire by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state. “That questionnaire you reference went out before I was ever selected as the nominee,” he said. “I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve of it. I don’t need that information. I don’t want that information. That is not how I manage.”

Cantwell pushed further—would Perry commit to allowing climate scientists to do their jobs? “I’m going to protect all of the scientists, whether it’s related to climate or the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing,” he replied.

Perry acknowledged in his opening statement that the climate is changing, though he stuck to his long-held position that combatting rising temperatures shouldn’t come at the cost of economic growth.

Rick Perry Prepares to Defend His Experience

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

As the governor of Texas, Rick Perry presided over the United State’s largest energy-producing state. When Donald Trump first pitched him on leading the Department of Energy, Perry reportedly thought he’d be able to lean on that experience to serve as America’s energy envoy to the world.

But the Department of Energy’s primary mandate is nuclear security. Two-thirds of the agency’s budget is directly related to the security and safety of America’s nuclear stockpile, as well as research activities. Much of Perry’s job will center on protecting the nation’s nuclear weapons, and figuring out how to keep other countries from getting them. (The Daily Caller has pushed back on reports Perry didn’t know what he was getting into.)

In his opening remarks, Perry emphasized his managerial experience in Texas, noting that while he once recommended eliminating the Department of Energy, he now understands its importance. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” he said. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”

Perry also gave top billing to the importance of maintaining America’s nuclear arsenal, citing his military experience: “As a former Air Force pilot during the days of the Cold War, I understand the deterrent value of our nuclear weapons systems, and the vital role they play in keeping the peace.”

Sanders Slams EPA Nominee for His Stance on Climate Change

During his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Democratic senators repeatedly questioned Scott Pruitt about his thoughts on global warming. Pruitt is the current attorney general of Oklahoma and Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The most incisive line of questioning came from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“Why is the climate changing?” Sanders asked.

“Senator, in response to the CO2 issue, the EPA administrator is constrained by statutes—” Pruitt started to reply.

“I’m asking you your personal opinion,” Sanders interrupted.

“My personal opinion is immaterial to the job,” Pruitt said.

“Really?” Sanders asked. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?”

Pruitt reiterated his frequently stated view that carbon emissions “impact” the climate system. Sanders balked at the verb impact, asserting correctly that climate scientists identify human greenhouse-gas emissions as the cause of climate change. (The UN’s consensus language is that human industrial activity is “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause” of global warming since the mid-20th century.)

Sanders then moved on to Pruitt’s record on earthquakes. During his time as state attorney general, Oklahoma has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of medium-magnitude quakes. The quakes are caused by wastewater injection from fracking operations. Pruitt was not in charge of regulating fracking in the state, but the earthquake epidemic opened several legal questions on which he did not act or comment. (I wrote about them earlier today.)

Sanders asked Pruitt to point to any enforcement actions he took, or public comments he made, about the quakes. Pruitt replied that enforcement wasn’t his job. If that’s Pruitt’s approach to environmental enforcement, Sanders said, Pruitt doesn’t have his vote.

Senate Committee Explores Tom Price's Commitment to Minority Health

Wilfredo Lee / AP

Late in the Senate confirmation hearing for Tom Price as secretary of health and human services, senators from both parties asked Price about his commitment to erasing the stubborn racial health disparities that still exist for just about every health outcome in the United States.

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine opened the line of questioning, asking Price if he would commit to maintaining HHS’s Office of Minority Health if the Affordable Care Act—which reauthorizes and funds that and several other federal offices for minority health—is repealed. Neither Price’s replacement plan nor the Republican ACA repeal plan from 2015 mentions the office. Price dodged the question, stating that he would “forward to making certain that we use the resources available to us.”

But when pushed by Kaine on how he would address racial health disparities, Price cited the need for more information and reporting on racial health outcomes, as well as greater understanding of individual patient experiences. Notably, the Office of Minority Health is charged in the ACA with collecting information and reporting on racial health disparities. Later, in an exchange with committee Ranking Member Patty Murray, Price confirmed that he would not commit now to continuing the office.

Republican Senator Tim Scott also questioned Price on his plans for addressing health disparities. Explaining that most of his home state of South Carolina is defined as “medically underserved,” Scott asked Price about his stance on rural health centers and community health centers, two types of federally funded clinics that often provide the last line of care for minorities in underserved areas. Price expressed his support for federal health centers, though his repeal plan would eliminate billions of funding authorized in the ACA to expand the number of such centers and the services they provide. Despite acknowledging the wide extent of health disparities, Price did not outline support for any program or initiative designed specifically to eliminate them.

Price Clashes With Warren Over Stock Trade

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Tom Price got into a tense exchange with Senator Elizabeth Warren over his trading in medical-company stocks, with the nominee for health and human services secretary at one point telling Warren he was “offended” at her insinuation that he sought to profit off legislation he had introduced in Congress.

Warren, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, grilled Price over his purchase of stock in a medical-device firm, Zimmer Biomet, just a week before he proposed legislation that could have benefited the company. Price said his broker purchased the stock without his knowledge, but Warren questioned why he didn’t immediately sell the stock or reprimand his broker once he found out that the investment might be inappropriate.

“I want to understand, when you found out your broker made this trade without your knowledge, did you reprimand her? Did you fire her? Did you sell the stock?” Warren asked the Georgia congressman in rapid-fire questions, often giving him no time to respond.

“What I did was comply with the rules of the House in an ethical and legal manner and in a transparent way,” Price replied.

Warren pointed out that Price was notified of the trade in early April 2016. “Did you take additional actions after that to advance your plans for the company that you now own stock?” she shot back.

“I am offended by the insinuation, senator,” Price said. A former spokeswoman for Price, Ellen Carmichael, wrote on Twitter that she had “never seen him as disgusted as he is at Sen. Warren.”

Price’s defense has rested in part on the fact that it is not uncommon for members of Congress to rely on stock brokers who may make investments on their behalf without their knowledge, including in industries that could be affected by legislation they are working on. Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia defended Price after his exchange with Warren, pointing out that another Price critic, Senator Al Franken, had invested in a mutual fund that included shares of tobacco firms. Franken had just finished calling out Price for purchasing tobacco stocks through his broker.

“This is different than a mutual fund,” Franken interjected. Mutual funds are protected from conflict-of-interests laws because individual investors have no say in their composition of stocks.

Democrats have clashed with Price throughout the nearly four-hour-long hearing, and most if not all are expected to oppose his nomination.

Ross Evades Questions About Reporting Trump’s Potential Conflicts of Interest

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, avoided giving a direct answer to questions about whether he will report potential conflicts of interest involving the Trump Organization that could arise in trade deals he would help negotiate.

During Ross’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, expressed concern that the president-elect has an unknown number of business interests around the world that may be impacted during trade talks with other countries. Trump said last week that he will not relinquish ownership of his businesses, though he said he’d give complete control to his sons. Udall wanted to know if Ross would tell Congress if another country offered incentives to the Trump Organization or threatened action against the company while he’s serving as commerce secretary.

“Well, anything that interferes with my job is something that I will have very little tolerance for if I’m confirmed, that I can assure you of,” Ross answered. The back-and-forth continued:

“Will you commit to report to this committee—it’s kind of a yes-or-no answer—if another country offers incentives or threatens consequences to the Trump family or the Trump Organization’s assets in the course of doing your job working on trade?” Udall asked.

“Well certainly if they threaten me I would be able to make people aware of it, but the hypothetical you are posing might very well be something I am not aware of, so that would make it very difficult to inform anyone of anything,” Ross answered.

“I’m talking about, within the course of doing your job and working on trade negotiations, somebody comes to you with either a threat or an incentive that involves the Trump Organization, would you let us at this committee know that this was happening?” Udall continued.

“Well, I’ll tell you two things. I know the president-elect quite well, and I think people who threaten him or offer inappropriate things will find that he doesn’t take that very lightly. There will be quite a strong response on his part, quite independently of anything I would do,” Ross said.

The line of questioning ended there, making it unclear how transparent Ross would be about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. Ross, a billionaire investor, filed financial disclosures Tuesday with the federal Office of Government Ethics, promising to divest 80 assets and investment funds in the next several months and to step down from positions at companies where he has direct business interests. When Udall asked if Trump should make a similar move, Ross said that it’s a “personal decision” that only the president-elect can make.

Price Open to Medicare Drug-Price Negotiations

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Republicans have generally opposed efforts by liberal Democrats to force pharmaceutical companies to negotiate lower drug prices with the government for Medicare and Medicaid. So it put Tom Price in an awkward position when President-elect Donald Trump said in a weekend interview that he wanted to do just that.

On Wednesday, Trump’s nominee for health and human services secretary said he would defer to his future boss on the issue, but it was clear he wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. During his hearing before the Senate health committee, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin asked Price if he would work with Congress to repeal the prohibition on Medicare drug-price negotiations. If confirmed, Price replied, “the boss that I have will be the president of the United States.”

“Is that a yes or is that a no?” Baldwin replied.

“Well, it depends on that activity,” Price said. “I think we need to find solutions to the challenge of people having access to medication, and it may be that one of those is changing the negotiation.”

Trump made his position known to The Washington Post, telling the paper that the drug companies had been “politically protected, but they’re not anymore.” Price’s lukewarm response contrasted with his much more enthusiastic endorsement of ideas Republican senators floated, including the expansion of health-savings accounts and the return of high-deductible catastrophic-coverage plans.

Did Tom Price Violate the STOCK Act?

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Tom Price, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, is in the hot seat today. Last week, multiple reports on his financial disclosures found that the Georgia representative and former physician invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock from medical-device makers, pharmaceuticals companies, and biomedical firms—even while sponsoring laws that would actively benefit those companies and that the companies themselves lobbied for. Among those entities are Indiana-based medical-device firm Zimmer Biomet and Australia-based Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd.

Senate Republicans and the Trump transition team have defended Price’s investments in Zimmer Biomet and pharmaceutical companies by noting that Price’s broker made the decisions to invest without his knowledge, and that the amounts purchased were relatively small. “Zimmer Biomet is a 26-share stock that his broker bought for him,” said Price’s fellow Georgian and close friend, Senator Johnny Isakson, at his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

But the main focus on Price’s investments at the hearing has been his 2016 purchases of stock in Innate Immunotherapeutics, described by The New York Times as “a tiny pharmaceutical company from Australia that has no approved drugs and no backing from flashy venture-capital firms, and trades for just over a dollar a share on the Australian Stock Exchange.” The largest shareholder of that company is Republican Representative Chris Collins, the Trump transition team’s congressional liaison, who owns about 20 percent of the company and sits on its board. Several other prominent Republicans—including some connected to Trump—have investments in Innate Immunotherapeutics, whose stocks have soared since 2016.

Democratic Senator Patty Murray used her time at the hearing to press Price on his investments. Murray noted that last week, Politico reporters overheard Collins bragging about “making millionaires” based on a stock tip he gave them. Murray asked if Price based his purchase of Innate Immunotherapeutics stock on inside information from Collins, which could have been a violation of the STOCK Act, a law designed, in part, to prevent members of Congress from making money based on their inside knowledge of a company. “Do you believe that it is appropriate for a senior member of Congress actively involved in health-care decisions to invest in these companies?” Murray asked.

“What happened was that he talked about the company and the work that they were doing,” Price responded. “I studied the company for a period of time, and felt that it had some significant merit and promise, and purchased the stock on the stock exchange itself.” Price said he received the stock via a private offering, and defended his decision to purchase it. He claimed that he was not aware that the price offered to him was lower than what was offered to the public, and that he “had no access to non-public information.”

Senator Orrin Hatch came to Price’s defense, noting that members of Congress have often held stock in companies and industries for which they also pass regulatory legislation. But the 2012 STOCK Act was specifically intended to curtail the practice of lawmakers using knowledge they acquired at work to make a profit. If it turns out that Price did receive non-public information, preferential stock pricing, or that Collins acted improperly in his millions-making enterprise, provisions of that law could potentially be used against him.

Price: I Haven't Discussed Medicare, Social Security Cuts With Trump

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail that there would be “no cuts” to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security if he won the White House. That pledge flew in the face of efforts by Republican leaders in Congress to overhaul those programs in ways that would lower benefits for recipients over time.

One of those Republicans was Representative Tom Price, who is now Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Price on whether Trump would “keep his word” not to cut those entitlement programs.

Price said the two men haven’t talked about it.

“I have not had extensive discussions with them about the comments he made, but I have no reason to believe that he has changed his position,” he replied.

The exchange fit a pattern emerging in his hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: Democrats sought to get Price to weigh in on comments Trump has made supporting an expansive government role in health care, while Price, who has fought government intrusion into medicine, largely tried to deflect those inquiries.

Sanders later asked Price if he believed healthcare should be a “right” of all Americans—a core liberal tenet of the last 40 years. Again, he did not answer directly. “We are a compassionate society...” Price began. Sanders cut him off. “No, we are not a compassionate society,” the Vermont senator said. “Our record is worse than any country on earth in relation to poor and working people. Half of our older workers have nothing set aside for retirement. Compared to other countries, we are not particularly compassionate.”

Given another chance, Price said he looked forward to working with Sanders to make sure “every single American has access coverage possible, to the highest quality care.” Sanders replied again, pointing out that people who can’t afford high-priced health care do not have “access” to it. “Access to,” he said, “does not mean they are guaranteed health care.”

Price Won't Guarantee 'Insurance for Everybody'

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Does Tom Price agree with President-elect Donald Trump that a Republican replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act will guarantee “insurance for everybody”?

Not quite.

In testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the nominee for secretary of health and human services offered a definition that differed in small but important ways. “I think it is imperative we have a system in place that has patients at the center and allows for every single American to have the opportunity to gain access for the coverage they want,” Price said after Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, asked if he agreed with the “insurance for everybody” goal that Trump mentioned in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

There’s a key distinction between guaranteeing insurance for all, which Democrats have sought to do, and simply providing “access” to insurance or affordable healthcare. Republican plans, including those offered by Price in the House, have focused on providing tax credits to help people buy their own insurance, but they have opposed mandates in Obamacare requiring individuals to purchase insurance and employers to provide it. In his answers to Murray, Price signaled strongly that expanding “access,” but not necessarily an insurance guarantee, was the goal.

In other questions on the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Price was similarly careful not to make concrete promises. Trump has said that after Price wins Senate confirmation—assuming he does—his administration would send a replacement plan to Capitol Hill. Price has reportedly not been involved in the transition teams discussions on that plan, and he provided few details about what would be in it.

The Georgia congressman did not object, however, to a proposed timeline for legislation offered by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the committee. Alexander said Congress first needs to pass “a rescue plan” this spring to shore up the Obamacare exchanges, which he said were in free fall. Only then would the House and Senate move to fully replacing and repealing the Affordable Care Act. The key, Alexander said, was that the repeal of the current law would not take effect until the replacement was ready.

Price said of the exchanges: “Something is going badly wrong out there.”

He echoed assurances from top Republicans that the Trump administration was “not interested in pulling the rug out from everybody.”

“A lot of people are talking about people losing their insurance,” Price said. “That is not our goal, nor is it our desire, nor is it our plan.”

Trump's Potential Commerce Secretary Vows to Renegotiate NAFTA

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross says his first priorities—if confirmed as commerce secretary—are to increase U.S. exports and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The president-elect has made no secret that NAFTA is logically the first thing for us to deal with. We ought to solidify relationships the best way we can in our territory before we go off to other jurisdictions,” Ross said Wednesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Ross is expected to be a key player in shaping trade policy for the Trump administration, and vowed to end the trade deficit by promoting U.S. exports. During his opening statement at the hearing, Ross said unfair trade deals have been “thwarting” American progress and need to be fixed. “I am not anti-trade. I am pro-trade. But I am pro sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the American manufacturing community. I think we should provide access to those countries that play fair and play by the rules.” Ross suggested that the United States will take an aggressive stance toward China and other countries that he believes aren’t playing by the rules. “They should be punished and severely,” he said.

If confirmed, Ross would lead an expansive federal agency that reports on U.S. economic activity, monitors the weather, issues patents and trademark registrations, and conducts the census every 10 years, among other responsibilities.

Ross, 79, is a billionaire investor with no political experience, who made much of his fortune buying troubled manufacturing companies and making them profitable. His supporters tout his business experience as essential to his role in creating jobs as commerce secretary, though his detractors criticize him for laying off thousands of American workers and shipping jobs abroad to turn around his companies. An investigation published this week by Reuters shows that he moved more than 2,000 jobs at failing textile, auto parts, and financial companies offshore. These actions stand in stark contrast to his tough talk against outsourcing, and will likely be a key issue during his hearing.

Ross’s confirmation hearing was initially scheduled to happen last week, but was delayed until he disclosed all his financial interests to the federal Office of Government Ethics. He submitted the paperwork on Tuesday, promising to divest 80 assets and investment funds in the next several months to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The ethics agreement reveals Ross’s complex business interests, including board positions with more than 80 companies and foundations. He has promised to step down from positions at companies where he has direct business interests.

As Ross began answering questions from the committee chairman, Sen. John Thune, on Wednesday, protesters began chanting in the background. “Ross supports TPP! Ross offshores jobs!” they yelled. Security guards escorted them out of the hearing room.

Committee Chairman Rejects Democrats' Demands to Ask More Questions of DeVos

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee have complained throughout the hearing about Chairman Lamar Alexander’s restrictions on question-and-answer time: five minutes of questioning per committee member, and no opportunity for a second round of queries despite near-universal Democratic calls for the option. This rule, according to Democratic Senator Patty Murray—the committee’s ranking member and one of the few members who got extended questioning time—“really is unprecedented.”

“I don't know what you are hoping Mrs. DeVos—hoping to protect Mrs. [Betsy] DeVos from,” Murray said, citing the time allowed for questions in hearings in the past, including for the secretaries of labor under Presidents Obama and Clinton.

Alexander emphasized that the hearings for the last two education secretaries—John King and Arne Duncan—lasted for just over two hours each. “I am trying to be fair by treating Ms. DeVos in the same way we treated both of President Obama's education nominees,” Alexander said. But Murray suggested that using those two hearings for comparison amounts to “cherry-picking,” particularly because DeVos is the only nominee so far not to have a signed Office of Governmental Ethics agreement in place in advance of a confirmation hearing. Alexander said they will move DeVos’s nomination forward if and once her ethics paperwork is squared away.

DeVos Says She Does Not Believe in Conversion Therapy

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

“I have never believed in that.” That was how Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, responded during her confirmation hearing to a question about whether she believes in conversion therapy.

LGBT advocacy groups expressed concern in the run-up to DeVos’s hearing that the next administration’s Department of Education will not offer support to LGBT students. Under the Obama administration, the department’s civil-rights office issued guidance to schools about how they can help trans students, and the administration has pushed to end the controversial use of conversion therapy and the bullying of LGBT students. While little was known about DeVos’s personal views, her family has donated to conservative Christian organizations that have anti-LGBT positions.

“First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality, and I believe in … the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination,” she said, in response to a query from Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. “Let's start there.”

In a later exchange, Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate, said she was heartened by DeVos’s comments on conversation therapy. But the Wisconsin lawmaker said she’d received concerned notes from parents of LGBT students. What would DeVos say to those families? “I embrace equality and I firmly believe in the intrinsic value of each individual,” DeVos said.

DeVos also pushed back on the idea that her extended family’s political contributions to groups with anti-LGBT views might be used against her. “As a mom, I just can’t imagine having a child that would feel discriminated against for any reason and I would want my child in a safe environment,” she said, responding to a question about her family’s donations.

Bennet Questions DeVos's Record on Charter-School Accountability

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Democratic Senator Michael Bennet homed in on the experience of Detroit’s charter schools as a means of better understanding how Betsy DeVos might approach charter-school accountability as U.S. education secretary. DeVos has wielded immense influence over Michigan’s charter-school landscape—something that has concerned critics who cite the relatively low performance of charter schools in the state.

As a recent report from Education Trust noted:

A review of Michigan’s 2015 federal charter school grant application by expert external reviewers cited an “unreasonably high” representation of Michigan charters among the state’s “priority” schools list—a designation for the state’s worst performing five percent of public schools.

In response to Bennet, DeVos said she wanted to “correct” some of the assumptions about charter-school quality and accountability in the Motor City and state as a whole. “I believe there is a lot that has gone right in Detroit and Michigan with regard to charter schools,” she said, noting that 122 charter schools have been closed in the state, “and the notion that there hasn't been accountability is just wrong. It is false news. It is not correct at all.”

But Bennet pushed back, emphasizing the existing data on charter-school performance Detroit. “What have you learned about the failures of the Detroit public schools and Detroit charter schools that has informed your decision-making as the secretary of education?” he asked. “What went wrong that is going to go right in cities across America as a result of your philosophy on how we ought to move the country forward?”

Although DeVos stressed her support of legislation aimed at increasing accountability and oversight of charter schools in Michigan, Allie Gross in a recent analysis for The Atlantic found extensive loopholes in that law.

Sanders Grills DeVos on Free College, Childcare

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Although Betsy DeVos reiterated her commitment to ensuring all families have the opportunity to give their kids a good education, she dodged questions from Bernie Sanders about programs that would ensure universal access to public colleges and universities—a model that was one of the hallmarks of the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign.

“I think that's a really interesting idea, and it is really great to consider and think about, but I think we also have to consider the fact that there is nothing in life that is truly free,” DeVos responded when Sanders asked her if she agreed with that model. “I think we can work together and work hard on making sure that college or higher education in some form is affordable for all young people that want to pursue it.” She added: “I would look forward to that opportunity.”

DeVos did not offer any detail on how she would approach universal access to childcare, which in many states costs more than a year’s worth of tuition at a public college. Sanders cited a hypothetical single mom making $30,000 or $40,000 a year and having to spend as much as half of that income on childcare—a reality that isn’t unusual in some pockets of the country. Despite her support for comparable programs at the K-12 level, DeVos didn’t say whether she’d support something like childcare vouchers for those mothers: “I would look forward to helping that mom getting quality education for their child or children so they can look forward to a bright and hopeful future,” she said.

At the beginning of his questioning, Sanders sought to highlight the DeVos family’s potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to Republican causes and questioned whether that influenced her nomination as education secretary. “My question is, and I don't mean to be rude, but … do you think that if your family had not made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?” Sanders asked.

“I do think there would be that possibility,” DeVos responded. “I have been working hard to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low income children.”

DeVos and Murray Spar Over Potential Privatization of Education

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, affirmed that she believes the mission of the Department of Education is to strengthen public education for all students during a tense exchange with Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who has said she has concerns about the Michigan billionaire’s history of supporting vouchers, which let families use taxpayer money to pay for private school.

DeVos sidestepped a question from Murray about whether she would commit to not supporting the privatization of education. “I’m hopeful we can work together,” DeVos said, adding that she wanted to support policies that would “empower” families to make the right choices for them.

Murray, who did not seem pleased by the answer, also pressed DeVos on her potential conflicts of interest. Critics have questioned the DeVos family’s ties to several companies in the education industry, including SoFi and the company K12, and questioned whether those affiliations would color her actions if she is confirmed. “I will not be conflicted. Period,” DeVos said in response to Murray’s question about her investment situation. DeVos added that she and her husband would not be involved in political contributions if she is confirmed.

In response to a follow-up question from Murray about whether she would provide the committee with three years of tax returns, DeVos said she's provided everything the committee requires. As my colleague Russell Berman noted, DeVos is the first cabinet nominee in at least the last 10 years to sit for a confirmation hearing without having signed an ethics agreement. And while she said she’s committed to resolving any conflicts, a number of senators, Murray included, said they remained concerned as the hearing got underway.

DeVos Hearing Begins Without Ethics Agreement

Carolyn Kaster / AP

The confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education began with a dispute over ethics and rules.

DeVos, a conservative education activist and Republican donor, is the first Cabinet nominee in at least a decade to receive a committee hearing before signing an agreement through the Office of Government Ethics committing to resolve potential conflicts of interest. DeVos submitted her paperwork to the office more than a month ago, but the relatively small agency is not finished processing it. Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee went ahead with her hearing anyway.

That omission has alarmed Democrats, and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, used her opening statement to say she was “extremely disappointed” that the hearing was being held without the completion of the ethics agreement. DeVos’s nomination, she said, had “started off on the wrong track.” Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said that the committee would not vote on DeVos’s confirmation until it received the agreement from the ethics office. If the agreement is in by Friday, the committee would vote next week. DeVos is married to Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune, and her vast financial holdings, including in education-related companies, has made for a complicated effort to unwind her investments in accordance with federal conflict-of-interest law.

The hearing was originally postponed by a week, and Senate Republicans have delayed other confirmation hearings for Trump Cabinet picks because of the backlog at the ethics office. Murray and other Democrats also complained that Alexander only planned to allow a single, five-minute round of questioning of DeVos, which would be significantly less time than senators have had to grill other Trump nominees like Rex Tillerson and Senator Jeff Sessions. Alexander cited precedents the committee followed for President Obama’s Cabinet nominees. “I’m not going to change the rules in the middle of the game,” the chairman said.

Zinke on Climate Change: 'I Do Not Believe It's a Hoax'

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Representative Ryan Zinke about his stance on climate change in his opening remarks, citing President-elect Donald Trump’s assertion that it is a “hoax.”

“I know you are not here to be administrator of the EPA or secretary of energy, but the issue of climate change is very important, an issue that the Department of Interior deals with. Is President-elect Trump right, is climate change a hoax?” Sanders asked.

Zinke replied: “First of all, the climate is changing. That is indisputable.”

Sanders asked again whether Zinke believed climate change was a “hoax.”  

“I am not a climate scientist expert, but I can tell you I will become a lot more familiar with it, and it would be on objective science. I do not believe it’s a hoax,” Zinke said. He added later: “I don't know definitively. There is a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle.”

In 2014, Zinke was quoted as saying climate change was "not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Earth scientists agree that the evidence overwhelmingly shows modern-day climate change to be human-caused.

Ryan Zinke Vows to Protect Federal Lands in Opening Statement

Richard Drew / AP

In his opening remarks, Represenative Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, reaffirmed his opposition to the transfer or sale of federal lands.

“Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and believe he had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of federal lands and set aside much of it as National forests. Today, much of those lands provide American’s the opportunity to hike, fish, camp, recreate and enjoy the great outdoors,” said the two term Montana congressman and former Navy SEAL, who has dubbed himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.”

The Interior Department oversees the federal government’s holdings of public lands. In his opening statement, Zinke expressed his intent to manage “under the Pinchot model of multiple use using best practices, sustainable policies, and objective science.” Gifford Pinchot led the U.S. Forest Service during the Roosevelt administration.

Zinke, who was an early supporter of Donald Trump, was selected to serve as the secretary of the interior in December. Zinke has been criticized for denying the science surrounding climate change. As my colleague Russell Berman notes, however, he’s unlikely to face major opposition from the Democratic Party since a position on Trump’s Cabinet would “remove him as a threat to challenge Senator Jon Tester in 2018.”

A Rundown of the Week’s Confirmation Hearings

Here’s an updated timetable for some of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees:

Ryan Zinke: The Republican congressman from Montana is Trump's nominee for interior secretary. He is scheduled to appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at 2:15 p.m. ET on Tuesday, January 17.

Betsy DeVos: The conservative education activist, who is the nominee to head the Department of Education, will appear before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, January 17. Her hearing was originally scheduled for Wednesday, January 11, but was delayed amid criticism from Democrats that Republicans were rushing to confirm Trump's nominees without sufficiently vetting them. More on that here.

Wilbur Ross: The billionaire investor is the nominee for commerce secretary. His hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, January 18. Ross’s nomination hearing was initially set for last week, but was postponed because he hadn’t returned his ethics agreement.

Scott Pruitt: The Oklahoma attorney general is Trump’s nominee to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency. His hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is scheduled for 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, January 18.

Nikki Haley: The South Carolina governor is the president-elect’s choice to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled for 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, January 18.

Tom Price: The Republican congressman from Georgia is a physician who Trump wants to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services. His hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is set for 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, January 18.

Rick Perry: The former Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate is Trump’s choice to head the Department of Energy. His hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. ET on Thursday, January 19.

Steven Mnuchin: The former senior executive at Goldman Sachs is the nominee for treasury secretary. His hearing before the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled for 10 a.m. ET on Thursday, January 19.

Our full list of Trump's Cabinet appointments is here.