Trump picks loyalists for economic posts, Obamacare critic for cabinet
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By Steve Holland
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump chose a former Goldman Sachs banker and a billionaire investor on Tuesday to steer economic policy in his administration and a fierce Obamacare critic to dismantle President Barack Obama's signature healthcare program.
Republican Trump is expected to name Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner and Hollywood financier, as his nominee for Treasury secretary, a source said, putting a Wall Street veteran in the top U.S. economic Cabinet post.
Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs before leaving in 2002 to launch a hedge fund, served as Trump's campaign finance chairman.
Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, known for his investments in distressed industries, is expected to be named commerce secretary, a source said.
The announcements could come as early as Wednesday.
The flurry of picks showed Trump, a real estate tycoon with no governing experience, rewarding loyalists and established Washington veterans as he rounds out his circle of top advisers.
Republican U.S. Representative Tom Price, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgia, will be Trump's health and human services secretary. Seema Verma, the founder of a health policy consulting company, will lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is part of Health and Human Services and oversees government health programs for the poor and the elderly and insurance standards.
Trump also announced his choice of Elaine Chao, labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to serve as secretary of transportation, saying in a statement that her expertise would be an asset "in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure."
While Trump made decisions on his economic team, he continued to mull over who should serve as his top diplomat.
He dined with former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a one-time critic and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, at a French restaurant in New York on Tuesday night.
Romney sharply criticized Trump during the presidential campaign but he offered praise after their dinner.
"He continues with a message of inclusion, of bringing people together," Romney told reporters. He said Trump's Cabinet choices so far and speech on Election Night were encouraging.
Trump cast Price and Verma as a "dream team" to help him once he takes office on Jan. 20 with his campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare, the health law formally known as the Affordable Care Act. It has been a target of Republican attacks since its enactment in 2010.
Price has characterized Obamacare as "doing real harm to American families" and has co-sponsored legislation to replace it.
Verma helped Pence, the Indiana governor, add conservative pieces to Medicaid coverage for the state's poor by requiring beneficiaries to make contributions to health savings accounts. She also worked on Medicaid programs in Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, was among the defenders of Obamacare who criticized Price's selection. "Nominating Congressman Price to be the HHS secretary is akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house," Schumer said.
The 2010 healthcare overhaul, aimed at expanding insurance coverage to millions more Americans, triggered a long, bitter fight between the White House and congressional Republicans, who said it created unwarranted government intervention in personal healthcare and private industry.
Trump has said he will replace Obamacare with a plan to give states more control over Medicaid and allow insurers to sell plans nationally.
Price and Verma will both need Senate confirmation. Congressional approval will be needed to repeal and change the health law.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Obamacare on Tuesday, saying it had expanded coverage to millions of Americans, boosted consumer protections and shored up the finances of the Medicare program for the elderly.
"We'll see if Trump care measures up," he said.
Trump said after meeting Obama following his Nov. 8 election victory that he would consider keeping the provisions of the healthcare law that let parents keep adult children up to age 26 on their insurance policies and that bar insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Price, an early Trump supporter in the U.S. House of Representatives who leads the budget committee, has proposed a plan that would create age-based tax credits for people who buy insurance coverage on their own.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Tuesday the eventual congressional plan to replace Obamacare would likely have much in common with Price's ideas.
Price's plan would also roll back the 2010 law's expansion of Medicaid for low-income people, a change that helped Obamacare cut the number of uninsured Americans to 29 million in 2015 from 49 million in 2010.
Trump vowed on the campaign trail to "save" Medicare, but Democrats said Price's plans could amount to privatizing the government program for the elderly. Price has endorsed converting Medicare from a program that covers set benefits to a voucher-style program to help people buy coverage.
"We say to Republicans who want to privatize Medicare: Go try it. Make our day," Schumer said on Tuesday, saying the change would be unpopular with the public.
Democrats also criticized the pick because Price has supported barring federal funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides some abortions in addition to birth control, health exams and other services.
Trump has met about 70 people as he looks to shape his White House and Cabinet team. Chao, his pick for transportation secretary, was the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position, as labor secretary. She is married to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump saw retired General David Petraeus, a potential candidate for the State Department or the Pentagon, on Monday. On Tuesday, he met Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as Romney, are in the running for secretary of state.
Trump is set to launch a "thank you tour" of states he won in the election, starting with a rally on Thursday in Cincinnati, aides said.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, David Shepardson, Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Jilian Mincer in New York; Writing by Emily Stephenson and Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney, Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)
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