September 9, 2015 / 9:27 PM / 4 years ago

Conservative U.S. senator won't fault Obama on antitrust law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate’s top antitrust overseer, elected with backing from the Tea Party, has fought the Obama administration and has a 100 percent rating from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But when it comes to enforcing antitrust law, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stopped well short of faulting the administration.

The Senate antitrust panel’s chairman, who was elected in 2010, said in an interview on Wednesday that antitrust enforcement should be nonpartisan.

He also said he plans to hold a hearing on two proposed insurance mergers, both of which he voiced concerns about.

Conventional wisdom says Republicans are less aggressive on antitrust, while Democrats are tougher. Lee disagreed.

“Antitrust law is and should be a nonpartisan issue. It should be an issue that is neither liberal nor conservative,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily purport to speak for all Republicans, but my own belief is that it would be a mistake to say ‘Oh, I’m anti-enforcement of antitrust law.’”

Asked his view of current enforcement efforts, Lee declined to explicitly support President Barack Obama’s team, but said: “I’m not categorically critical of this administration’s approach. ... I’m supportive of antitrust law.”

Under Obama, the government has blocked some big corporate combinations, such as Comcast Corp’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable Inc, and food distribution giant Sysco Corp’s plan to buy rival US Foods Inc.

Lee noted concerns about a plan unveiled in July by Aetna Inc to buy smaller rival Humana Inc, as well as Anthem Inc’s agreement to buy rival Cigna Corp.

Both are being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We’re dealing here with among the top five companies in the healthcare space, you have four companies that are involved in one of these two deals. That’s pretty significant,” said Lee.

He declined to say that the Justice Department should stop either of the mergers. But he said his subcommittee will hold a hearing to discuss them on Sept. 22.

Lee said an Oct. 7 hearing will address how the Federal Trade Commission’s merger challenge procedure differs from the Justice Department’s.

“We want them to be the same standard,” said Lee, who expects to introduce a bill in the next week or two.

Lee said a second hearing in October will focus on how a variety of powerful interests - one example is taxi services - misuse laws to fend off rivals, such as Uber or Lyft.

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