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Where things stand for Trump’s Cabinet amid tough questioning

Several of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees have faced tough questioning. At Rep. Tom Price's hearing, the spotlight fell on the fate of the Affordable Care Act and his own history. Lisa Desjardins and Jeffrey Brown report on the scrutiny placed on Price, EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos by the Senate.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to the confirmation hearings for the president-elect's Cabinet.

    One of Mr. Trump's most repeated pledges is to repeal and replace Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

    His nominee to head the Health and Human Services Department, Representative Tom Price, faced aggressive questioning today when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

    Lisa Desjardins has our report.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    When Tom Price, doctor, congressman and hopeful health secretary, today faced the Senate Health Committee, the spotlight fell equally on the fate of the Affordable Care Act he wants to repeal and on Price's own history.

    Sen. Patty Murray launched a Democratic theme.

  • SEN. PATTY MURRAY, D-Wash.:

    You purchased stock in Innate Immunotherapeutics, a company working to develop new drugs, on four separate occasions between January 2015 and August 2016. You made the decision to purchase that stock, not a broker, yes or no?

    REP. TOM PRICE, R-Ga., Health and Human Services Secretary Nominee: That is a decision that I made, yes.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Price stressed that other health stocks he owned were chosen by his broker. The questions arise from his financial disclosures, showing Price invested in health-related companies in the past two years, as he pushed legislation in Congress that benefited those companies.

  • SEN. PATTY MURRAY:

    Your purchases occurred while the 21st Century Cures Act, which had several provisions could that could impact drug developers like Innate Immunotherapeutics, was being negotiated, and, again, just days before you were notified to prepare for a final vote on the bill.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Price insisted those bills were consistent with what he's done for years, and that while he did get a private stock offer, he had no special knowledge of the company.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    I had no access to non-public information.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Minnesota Sen. Al Franken pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal report finding that Price traded more than $300,000 of health-related companies while simultaneously working on policy affecting those companies.

  • SEN. AL FRANKEN, D-Minn.:

    These sound like sweetheart deals, and I think that our job in this body and in Congress and in government is to avoid the appearance of conflict. And, boy, you have not done — done this.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The exchanges moved from calm to tense. Price pushed back, insisting he would never use his office for financial gain.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    What I did was comply with the rules of the House in an ethical and legal and above-board manner and in a transparent way.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Republican Orrin Hatch called the Democratic push for an investigation hypocrisy, pointing out no rules in Congress prevent stock trades.

  • SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah:

    In fact, there are members on this committee who have — as I understand it, who have traded individual health stocks while serving on this committee. Now, this appears to be nothing more than a hypocritical attack on your good character.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    Thank you, sir. Everything that we have done has been above-board, transparent, ethical and legal. And, as you know, and the members of this committee know, there's an organization that's called the Office of Government Ethics that looks at all of — for every Cabinet nominee, looks at all of the possessions, all the holdings and the like, and makes a recommendation as to what that Cabinet member must do in order to make certain that there's no conflict of interest.

    The Office of Government Ethics has looked at our holdings and given advice about what would need to be done in terms of divesting from certain stock holdings.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    As part of the nomination ethics process, Price has pledged to divest from 43 companies, including those the Democrats raised, within 90 days of his confirmation.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    I think some of the things that have occurred with the passage of the ACA have improved certain areas. The coverage is certainly improved.

    But the consequences of that, I mean, that many people, as I have mentioned before, have coverage, but they don't have care. I think that the more involvement that patients and families and doctors can have in medical decisions, the higher-quality care we will have.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Mr. Price, who practiced as an orthopedic surgeon for more than two decades, proposed his own detailed plan last year, offering some tax credits and repealing the Medicaid expansion.

    To him, that means less government interference, but to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, it means cuts to needy populations.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    What we believe is appropriate is to make certain that the individuals receiving the care are actually receiving care.

  • SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, D-Mass.:

    I understand why you think you're right to cut it. I'm just asking the question. Did you propose to cut more than a trillion dollars out of Medicaid over the next 10 years?

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    You have the numbers before you.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Mr. Price insisted that a Republican replacement plan would ensure widespread access to care.

  • REP. TOM PRICE:

    My role in Congress was to always make certain that individuals had the opportunity to gain access to the kind of coverage that they that they desired and that they had the financial feasibility to do so.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But access, Sen. Bernie Sanders said, is not the same as coverage.

  • SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt.:

    I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don't have the money to do that.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Price next goes before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Scott Pruitt also took his turn in the hot seat today. If confirmed, he would be the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the president-elect has said he wants him to reverse eight years of what he calls of President Obama's environmental policies. Democrats wanted to see just how far he plans to go.

    Jeffrey Brown has that story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As the hearing began, Democrats focused on today's announcement from NASA scientists that the Earth had seen record temperatures for a third straight year. This exchange followed.

  • SEN. EDWARD MARKEY, D-Mass.:

    Donald Trump has called global warming a hoax caused by the Chinese. Do you agree that global warming is a hoax?

  • SCOTT PRUITT, EPA Administrator Nominee:

    I do not, Senator.

  • SEN. EDWARD MARKEY:

    So, Donald Trump is wrong?

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    I do not believe that climate change is a hoax.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But, in his opening statement, Scott Pruitt had an important caveat.

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continued debate and dialogue, and well it should be.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Pruitt made clear he does believe strongly in states' rights, and said he'd work to return the federal watchdog to what he considers its proper role.

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    Federalism matters. It matters because Congress says so. And because we need it to achieve good outcomes as a nation for air and water quality, we need the partnership of the states to achieve that. It is our state regulators who oftentimes best understand the local needs and the uniqueness of our environmental challenges.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits against the EPA and an array of Obama administration environmental rules. And, in the past, he's said he will work to repeal the president's centerpiece climate regulation cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

    Today, several Democrats raised concerns over the health ramifications.

  • SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.:

    We have had children die in New York City because none of their teachers, no administrators in the schools knew what to do when a child has an asthma attack. It's a huge problem.

    So, I need you to care about human health and really believe that the cost when human health is at risk, when people are dying is far higher than it is the cost to that polluter to clean up the air and change their processes. I need you to feel it as if your children sitting behind you are the ones in the emergency room. I need you to know it.

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    And, Senator, I would say to you there are certain instances where cost can't even be considered, as you know. Those criteria pollutants under our NAAQS program, cost is not even a factor, because human health is the focus.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Environmental protesters interrupted the proceedings several times. One was forcibly removed into the hallway.

    At various points, some Democrats showed their irritation at what they saw as Pruitt's vague responses. For their part, though, Republicans praised Pruitt for his work in Oklahoma, including his handling of a dispute involving poultry industry runoff into the Illinois River. Pruitt negotiated a deal and ordered further study, ending the legal fight.

    Democrats pointed to campaign contributions Pruitt had received from poultry company officials. But Republicans focused on what they see as economic harm and bureaucratic barriers raised by the EPA.

    Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska:

  • SEN. DEB FISCHER, R-Neb.:

    As a result of the activist role the EPA has played for the past eight years, families are concerned about the futures of their livelihood. What steps will you take as the EPA administrator to provide relief for American families that are faced truly with an onslaught of EPA rules?

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    Well, it's very important that that process be adhered to, to give voice to all Americans in balancing the environmental objectives we have, but also the economic harm that results. And the Supreme Court has spoken about that rather consistently of late. And I would seek to lead the EPA in such a way to ensure that openness and transparency.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Scott Pruitt is expected to confirmed by the full Senate, with support from all 51 Senate Republicans.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We also want to follow up on the confirmation hearing for the president-elect's pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

    Last night, we told you about some of her ideas, but after our broadcast, we learned more, as her hearing continued into the evening.

    When pressed, she said she wouldn't rule out using public funds for private schools. She also seemed opposed to free tuition for community college.

    She was asked about her commitment to civil rights for students who are LGBTQ and past contributions to groups that are opposed to same-sex marriage. She also faced a tough exchange from Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut on whether guns should be carried on schools campuses.

  • SEN. CHRIS MURPHY, D-Ct.:

    One final question: Do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?

  • BETSY DEVOS, Education Secretary Nominee:

    I think that's best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is…

  • SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

    You can't say that — you can't say definitively today that guns shouldn't be in schools?

  • BETSY DEVOS:

    Well, I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there's probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.

  • SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

    If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?

  • BETSY DEVOS:

    I will support what the president-elect does.

    But, Senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that I — my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.

  • SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

    I look forward to working with you, but I also look forward to you coming to Connecticut and talking about the role of guns in schools.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    DeVos was also asked repeatedly about how she would enforce the disabilities law for education. At times, she didn't seem certain about some of the law's provisions.

    Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat and the former vice presidential nominee, led off this exchange.

  • SEN. TIM KAINE, D-Va.:

    Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act?

  • BETSY DEVOS:

    I think that's a matter that's best left to the states.

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    So, states might — some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then, what, people could just move around the country if they don't like how their kids are being treated?

  • BETSY DEVOS:

    I think that's an issue that is best left to the states.

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    Let me state this. I think all schools that receive federal funding, public, charter, or private, should be required to meet the conditions oft Individuals With Disabilities and Education Act. Do you agree with me or not?

  • BETSY DEVOS:

    I think that's certainly worth discussion. And I would look forward to…

  • SEN. TIM KAINE:

    So, you cannot yet agree with me?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That was at DeVos' hearing last night.

    So, let's wrap up all of this with a look at where things stand for the Trump Cabinet.

    And, for that, we're joined once again by the NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill.

    So, Lisa, there is also news today about President-elect Trump's pick to be head of the Office of Management and Budget.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right. Someone not even with a hearing today is making the headlines.

    That's Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. We now know that Rep. Mulvaney in the early 2000s failed to pay taxes for one of his household employees. It was a baby-sitter, a child care provider for he and his wife's three triplets at the time.

    Mulvaney disclosed this information to the Senate Budget Committee about a month ago, we are told. And he has then paid some back taxes, about $15,000. He's waiting for the bill from his state as well.

    Of course, I don't need to tell our viewers this is significant, because issues like this have completely scuttled nominations for others, including also another former member of Congress, Tom Daschle, who was the nominee for HHS secretary, and also Zoe Baird, under President Clinton, who was the nominee for attorney general.

    We are not hearing anything yet from Senate Republicans. Senate Democrats are going after this very strongly. I did talk to Sen. John McCain, who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He told me he thinks this is fairly serious.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Lisa, one other thing. You were telling me earlier that there are some pretty serious negotiations going on right now between the Democratic and the Republican leaders in the Senate over the order that these nominees will have a confirmation vote.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right, and specifically how many of these Cabinet secretaries are confirmed on day one.

    We know that is something that President-elect Trump has been measuring. And we know that he's been looking at President Obama's number, which was seven confirmations on day one. Right now, Judy, it doesn't look like he will come close to that.

    In fact, Democrats are negotiating over whether they will allow any nominees to be confirmed on day one. They can hold up a nomination over the course of a single day or more. And they're talking about the doubts they have and the problems they have with what they say the way these confirmation hearings have been rushed through.

    Republicans say that's not fair, and they want the same treatment the Obama nominees received.

    I think what's important to watch for, Judy, is especially the Defense or Homeland Security positions. Those are the most important to Republicans. We will see if any of those are confirmed on day one. Those are all — all of that is in the air even just two days out from inauguration.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A lot to follow, Lisa Desjardins.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Correct.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, thanks very much.

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