WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats on Thursday demanded an ethics probe into Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for U.S. health secretary, following a report that the fierce Obamacare critic traded in healthcare company stocks while pushing legislation in Congress that could affect those shares.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and others made their comments as congressional Republicans moved ahead with their long-desired effort to dismantle President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, and signalled the vehemence with which Democrats will fight to protect the 2010 law.
Price is an orthopaedic surgeon and a Republican congressman from Georgia who, if confirmed by the Senate as Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, would be given the task of carrying out Trump's promise to gut the law that has enabled up to 20 million previously uninsured Americans to obtain medical coverage.
The Democrats called on the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which examines misconduct allegations involving House of Representatives members, to investigate Price's stock trades.
The Wall Street Journal last month reported that Price bought and sold more than $300,000 in stock in about 40 healthcare, pharmaceutical and biomedical companies over the past four years while sponsoring and advocating legislation that could influence those companies' shares.
"Every American should be shocked by this," Schumer told a news conference.
"We don't know if he broke the law," Schumer said of Price. "But there are certainly enough serious questions to warrant a serious investigation before any hearing is held on Congressman Price to become secretary of HHS."
Democratic Senator Patty Murray said lawmakers want to know what nonpublic information Price may have had when the transactions at issue were made.
Phil Blando, a Trump transition spokesman, called Schumer's demands a "stunt" to deflect attention from Obamacare's "dismal record."
Price, asked by Reuters in a Capitol hallway for a reaction to Schumer's comments, replied, "We're looking forward to a positive and productive confirmation hearing."
A 2012 law prohibits members and employees of Congress from using "any nonpublic information" stemming from the person's position or gained while performing their job for personal benefit.
The nonpartisan watchdog group Public Citizen also asked the ethics office, as well as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, to investigate Price and another Republican congressman, Chris Collins of New York, for possible violations of insider trading and conflict-of-interest laws and rules.
Public Citizen said that, while serving in the House, Collins also sat on the board of directors of Australian biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd (IIL.AX) and was its largest shareholder, with a 17 percent stake. It said Price also bought shares in the company.
Collins serves as the Trump transition team's congressional liaison. Collins spokesman Michael McAdams said in a statement the congressman "has followed all ethical guidelines related to his personal finances during his time in the House and will continue to do so."
House Republicans had moved on Monday to weaken the ethics office but backtracked a day later after criticism from Democrats and Trump.
Trump transition spokesman Blando said the ethics questions Schumer raised about Price should be directed to three sitting Democratic senators, Delaware's Tom Carper, Virginia's Mark Warner and Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse, "who own and have traded hundreds of thousands of dollars in pharmaceutical and health insurance company stocks."
"Hypocrisy is apparently alive and well this morning in Washington," Blando said.
A Warner spokeswoman said his investments were managed by an independent trustee. A Whitehouse spokesman said the senator does not direct his trading. A Carper spokeswoman said he has submitted thorough financial disclosures and "always complied with every requirement and regulation."
Republicans will control the White House and Congress once Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
In a series of Twitter posts on Thursday, Trump blasted the Democrats over Obamacare, taunting Schumer as "head clown."
"It is time for Republicans & Democrats to get together and come up with a healthcare plan that really works - much less expensive & FAR BETTER!" Trump wrote.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said he expects the legislative work on repealing and replacing Obamacare to be completed this year. "What date all of this gets phased in on is something we do not now know," Ryan added.
Ryan indicated that a Republican proposal to strip women's healthcare organisation Planned Parenthood of federal funding will be included in the Obamacare repeal legislation. Planned Parenthood draws the ire of many Republicans because it provides abortions, as well as cancer screenings and other services.
Republicans criticise Obamacare, one of Obama's signature accomplishments in his eight years in office, as an excessive government intrusion into the healthcare market and contend it is harming job growth by burdening businesses. Democrats said Obamacare has extended insurance to millions of Americans and curbed abuses by private insurers such as refusing to provide policies to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and David Alexander; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis