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May 11, 2017

Controversy over Comey's firing bleeds into health care legislative agenda

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The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) on Wednesday delayed a scheduled FDA user fee reauthorization bill markup after Democrats were called away to protest President Trump's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.

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Details of Comey's firing

Comey's firing was announced Tuesday. The White House attributed his dismissal to his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state—although Trump during the presidential campaign had praised Comey for pursuing the investigation, the New York Times reports. Trump also asserted Wednesday that Comey "was not doing a good job."

Comey was four years into a 10-year term, and, according to the Times, was in the midst of an investigation into whether Trump's advisers worked with the Russian government in a way that may have influenced the 2016 presidential election. In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump asserted that the former FBI director had repeatedly informed him that the president himself was not under investigation as part of the Russia probe, the Times reports, but some Democrats cite the probe as a reason to be suspicious of Comey's dismissal.

During his time as FBI director, Comey sought to increase collaboration between hospital and health system leaders and law enforcement to combat cyberattacks. The day before his firing, Comey spoke at the American Hospital Association annual meeting on the topic. He noted that cyberattacks in health care are on the rise, citing five cases in which hackers used patient health records to re-open previously closed health savings accounts and purchase valuable items that were later sold for profit.  

Comey's firing delays health care markup

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked all Democrats to be present in Senate chamber at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, effectively cancelling committee hearings for the day, including the Senate HELP committee's scheduled markup of a bill to reauthorize FDA user fees, which the committee ultimately voted 21-2 on Thursday to approve.

Democrats, and even some Republican lawmakers, have spoken out against the dismissal. Democrats, according to Roll Call, are threatening to continue delaying the Senate's daily activities until Republicans agree to an independent investigation into Russia's suspected involvement in the presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday made similar calls for a special congressional investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

However, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he is unsure why additional investigations are needed because the Senate Intelligence Committee is currently looking into the matter.

Despite controversy, GOP says ACA repeal efforts will advance

Some Republicans have raised concerns that the public outcry over Comey's dismissal could hinder their legislative priorities, including their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but others say health reform discussion, at least, will continue as usual.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said, "Anytime you have a controversy like this, at least in the short-term, it will be a hindrance going forward with legislation—that's just the reality." He added, "Yesterday, everyone was talking about health care. Today, all anyone is talking about is Comey and the FBI and Russia."

But Senate HELP committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) suggested that the Comey news would not distract from GOP efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. He said, "Washington has a hard time doing more than one thing at a time, and in the Senate Republican caucus, we're focused on health care."

Further, while there are several procedural moves Senate Democrats could take to slow daily activities, Politico reports there is a limited amount Senate Democrats can do to block the health care bill, since Senate Republicans do not need Democratic support to pass a bill via the reconciliation process.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, "The health care effort right now is 100 percent Republican. So it's not really affecting (it)," adding, "Issues that you deal with that are done in a bipartisan way, sometimes it has an effect. In this particular case, it's having zero effect … there was no discussion" (Everett/Bade, Politico, 5/10; Kim Cohen, Becker's Health IT & CIO Review, 5/10; Pittman, "Morning eHealth," Politico, 5/9; Beavers, The Hill, 5/9; Shear/Apuzzo, New York Times, 5/9; Nather, Axios, 5/10; Williams/Lesniewski, Roll Call, 5/11; Shear et al., New York Times, 5/10; Owens, Axios, 5/11).

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