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Trump nominee scandal puts GOP plan to kill Obamacare in serious jeopardy

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.
Al Drago | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.

The hunt to bag and eliminate at least one of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet members is running out of time. But the Democrats hoping to prove they still have some clout on Capitol Hill just got a big assist from the oldest and most effective ally any political combatant can hope for: Scandal. And that's bad news for a one of Trump's appointees who just happens to start confirmation hearings Wednesday.

The battle over presidential cabinet appointments is always a partisan battle. But partisan differences are never a good enough reason to publicly nix an appointee. Some kind of illegal act or an investigation into an alleged illegal act is just about the only thing that does the trick. And new allegations against Trump's HHS Secretary-Designate Tom Price have come just in time for Democrats on the hunt.

Price, who has been a Member of Congress for 12 years, is suddenly under scrutiny. CNN reported that he bought up to $15,000 worth of a medical device maker and then introduced a bill that would have protected or at least delayed new regulations that would have harmed the company's bottom line.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer jumped on the story Tuesday and told reporters that Price "may have broken the law." Price's office says the investment was made by a fund manager without Price's specific knowledge, but the question is: Are Price and his nomination really in jeopardy?

Since these confirmation battles are truly a practice in revenge and "tit for tat," it's important to note that what Price is accused of here falls about in the middle when it comes to financial magnitude for troubled nominees. President Obama had two cabinet appointees forced to drop out because of questions about or formal investigations into alleged financial issues.

His HHS Secretary nominee Tom Daschle dropped out of consideration when it turned out he had failed to pay about $140,000 in taxes. And President Obama's original choice for Commerce Secretary, Bill Richardson, stepped away from consideration because of an ongoing federal investigation into contracts the state of New Mexico awarded to a Richardson campaign donors when he was governor of that state. (That probe was later dropped).

Those two examples from the Obama era would seem to put Price in a safer zone at least when total dollar values are concerned, but passing a bill to benefit a new investment is a much bigger deal than the one issue that had derailed the most cabinet appointees over the last 24 years: Illegal nannies and housekeepers. A whopping combined total of five Bill Clinton and George W. Bush nominees for cabinet positions all stepped down because, or partly because they employed undocumented immigrants in their homes. Compared to your garden variety "nannygate," these accusations against Price certainly seem much worse.

And a big part of what makes them worse is the simplicity of it all. Consider that before these allegations about Price's stock purchase surfaced Monday night, Treasury Secretary-Designate Seth Mnuchin was the likely best bet to be forced to step down. The fact that he ran a bank some called a "foreclosure machine" during the aftermath of the mortgage crisis certainly made him easy to paint as a bad guy.

"The real reason Price is being targeted by the Democrats is not just because he's a Republican on the opposite side of the never ending partisan battle. He's also the man at the center of Trump's promise to repeal and replace Obamacare."

But the facts and details of the housing collapse are still disputed and not so easy to explain to all of the voters (credit default swaps, anyone?) and there's plenty of "gray area" to play around with in Mnuchin's case. Compare that to a Congressman allegedly buying a stock in a little-known company and then immediately introducing a measure to protect that company's profits. That's something just about everyone can understand and igniting a furor over it isn't that hard.

And just because Price is a member of Congress, he can't expect any professional courtesy from his colleagues. It should be noted that the only presidential cabinet nominee to actually be voted down and not just someone who dropped out of the running was then-Senator John Tower. Tower was President George H.W. Bush's first choice for Secretary of Defense who was dogged by serious allegations of womanizing and alcoholism. So if the allegations against Price get any more traction, he can't expect to get a pass.

But make no mistake, the real reason Price is being targeted by the Democrats is not just because he's a Republican on the opposite side of the never ending partisan battle. He's also the man at the center of Trump's promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, which the Democrats seem to be making a top priority to stop. The kind of publicity nixing Trump's HHS nominee would generate would amount to a victory the Democrats could claim in the continuing Obamacare battles and the fight to appear like Trump opponents with clout.

A lot of us are certainly emotional about our money. A lot of us vividly remember the 2008-09 financial crisis. But the battle over the ACA is in the here and now and our health insurance coverage is a more personal and emotional trigger for more people than mortgage issues. Those factors seem like they could be Mnuchin's saving grace and Price's Achilles heel.

Look for both the Democrats and the Republicans presiding over Price's confirmation hearing Wednesday to go right at him over this potential stock purchase scandal. But of course the fiercest challenges will come from the Democratic Senators who will have their zeal for defending and preserving Obamacare as the ultimate justification in their minds to go as hard on Price as possible.

And if Price isn't reasonably blameless in this stock purchase incident or if he's not up to taking the intense heat sure to come his way, his chances to survive the Democrats' extreme desire to shoot down at least one Trump nominee won't be very good.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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