By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services may have broken the law by making a stock purchase just before he introduced legislation that would have benefited the firm, the Senate's leading Democrat charged on Tuesday.
A confirmation hearing for Tom Price, a Republican congressman and orthopedic surgeon from Georgia, was scheduled for Wednesday before the Senate Health Committee. If confirmed, he would be a key player in carrying out Trump's plans to overhaul Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.
CNN reported on Sunday that Price bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of shares last March in Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc , a medical device manufacturer.
Days later, he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would have delayed a regulation that could have ultimately damaged the company, CNN said.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether Price had violated the 2012 Stock Act, a law designed to combat insider trading.
Schumer said Price's Zimmer Biomet purchase may have been in violation of that law. "It may be that this trade was illegal," Schumer said on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon.
The Trump transition team said late on Monday that the stock purchase was directed not by Price but by a broker and that the congressman himself did not become aware of the stock buy until well after the legislation was introduced.
The transition team urged CNN to retract the story.
"Any effort to connect the introduction of bipartisan legislation by Dr. Price to any campaign contribution is demonstrably false," said transition spokesman Phil Blando.
Schumer did not sound convinced. "Now they say there's a broker, it's kind of strange that this broker would pick this stock totally independently of him introducing legislation that's so narrow and specific to this company," Schumer told CNN on Tuesday.
Sean Spicer, who will serve as Trump's White House spokesman, defended Price. "Regarding dem attacks on @RepTomPrice: this is a stock trade worth $300. You couldn't get into a @SenSchumer fundraiser for that amount," Spicer said in a tweet.
Another sign of trouble for Republicans in the healthcare arena emerged on Tuesday when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said a repeal of Obamacare - a top priority of both Trump and congressional Republicans - would increase the number of people without health insurance by 18 million in the first year.
That number would grow to 32 million by the year 2026 and premiums would double in that time, the CBO said.
The report based its analysis on a Republican repeal bill that was passed a year ago but vetoed by Obama. Republicans say the same bill is the blueprint for the repeal effort now under way in Congress.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, characterized the CBO projection as "meaningless." He said it did not take into account measures under consideration to replace the law or "actions that the incoming administration will take to revitalize the individual (insurance) market that has been decimated by Obamacare."
Price, an ardent advocate of Obamacare repeal, is one of eight Trump Cabinet nominees who will face Senate confirmation hearings this week. The hearings started on Tuesday with Ryan Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana tapped for interior secretary, and Republican philanthropist Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary.
Trump's presidential inauguration is on Friday and his team is hoping to have as many of his nominees as possible, perhaps as many as seven, confirmed by then.
Price, however, will not be one of them. A second Senate panel, the Finance Committee, must also hold a hearing and a vote on Price's nomination, and it has not yet scheduled its hearing.
Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney