Senate confirms Trump health secretary

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a new boss, Alex Azar, after nearly four months without a permanent leader.

The Senate confirmed Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, on Wednesday by a 55-43 vote with six Democrats and Independent Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingBipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Lawmakers say Trump tariffs are threatening local newspapers Senate adds members to pro-NATO group MORE (Maine) joining all but one Republican to support the nominee.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP leader blocks resolution backing intelligence community on Russia Rand Paul blocks Sanders's Russia resolution, calls it 'crazy hatred' against Trump McCain: Trump plays into 'Putin's hands' by attacking Montenegro, questioning NATO obligations MORE (R-Ky.) was the lone Republican to vote against his confirmation, after having previously expressed concern over Azar's reticence to let drugs be imported from overseas.

Azar replaces Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PricePoll: Majority in some GOP districts say Republicans 'more corrupt' than Dems Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Overnight Health Care: Watchdog finds Tom Price improperly used funds on flights | Ex-Novartis CEO sent drug pricing proposal to Cohen | HHS staffers depart after controversial social media posts MORE, who resigned in September after Politico detailed repeated trips he took on private and military jets, costing taxpayers more than $1 million.

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Democrats have attacked Azar over drug prices — saying the cost of several drugs more than doubled during his time at Eli Lilly — and expressed concern that he would continue what they view as the Trump administration’s attempts to sabotage ObamaCare.

Meanwhile, Republicans cast Azar’s nearly 10 year tenure at Eli Lilly, where he served as president of Lilly USA from 2012 to 2017 years, as an asset because he already knows the ins and outs of such a complex industry.

Azar will take the helm of the massive department at a critical juncture for ObamaCare. It’s unlikely congressional Republicans will return to the difficult task of repealing and replacing President Obama’s signature health-care law, leaving the White House to seek changes on its own through administrative action.

Azar knows the regulatory process well. Under former President George W. Bush, he served HHS as general counsel from 2001 to 2005. He then became deputy secretary for two years under Secretary Mike Leavitt, who asked Azar to oversee the department’s regulatory process.

“He understands the process and he knows the levers and how you make it work and where the potential roadblocks are,” Leavitt told The Hill last year. “I think he would be of particular value given the fact that ... so far a repeal bill has not occurred and they’re going to need to make their imprint on existing laws through replacing the ideology underpinning it.”

Prescription drugs prices are also likely to be discussed under Azar's tenure. Lawmakers have criticized the high costs of prescription drugs, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE has said drug companies were “getting away with murder.” In nomination hearings, Azar said “drug prices are too high.”

But in those hearings, Democrats expressed concerns over Azar’s record as a pharmaceutical executive, and that was, in part, a reason why some senators voted against his confirmation.

“Here’s my view: Mr. Azar’s nomination is a perfect encapsulation of the president’s broken promises on prescription drugs and health care overall,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a press release ahead of a procedural vote on Azar’s confirmation.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice MORE (R-Utah) has countered that Azar has the right experience to helm HHS, which oversees everything from Medicare and Medicaid to drug approvals and disease control.

“Mr. Azar spent several years as a senior official at HHS, holding key positions overseeing Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage. He also led HHS’s responses to the anthrax attacks shortly after 9/11, the SARS and monkeypox crises, Hurricane Katrina, and many others,” Hatch said in a press release ahead of the confirmation vote.

“Clearly, Mr. Azar has seen both the good and bad at HHS and knows how to manage them. I don’t think there is anyone here, even on the other side of the aisle, who would contest that.”

The six Democrats who voted for Azar are Sens. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act Full interview: Democratic candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris discusses her Senate campaign in Delaware MORE (Del.), Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAnti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Overnight Defense: More Trump drama over Russia | Appeals court rules against Trump on transgender ban | Boeing wins Air Force One contract | Military parade to reportedly cost M MORE (Del.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Fed chief lays out risks of trade war MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds MORE (N.D.), Doug Jones (Ala.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (W.Va.).