ASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday became the third lawmaker to block the Senate from voting to confirm Dr. Robert Califf — making it increasingly unlikely that President Obama’s nominee to run the Food and Drug Administration will get a vote anytime soon.
The Vermont Democrat said he was placing a “hold” on Califf’s nomination, joining with party colleague Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who said earlier this week he would block Califf because of his concerns over the FDA’s policy on prescription opioids.
But Sanders also said he was convinced Califf was too close to the pharmaceutical industry and wouldn’t do enough to control rising prescription drug prices.
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“At a time when millions of Americans cannot afford to purchase the prescription drugs they require, we need a leader at the FDA who is prepared to stand up to the drug companies,” Sanders said. “We need someone who will work to substantially lower drug prices, implement rules to safely import brand-name drugs from Canada and hold companies accountable who defraud our government.”
“Dr. Califf’s extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry give me no reason to believe that he would make the FDA work for ordinary Americans, rather than just the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
Earlier this month, Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said she would block the vote until the FDA reversed its policy on the voluntary labeling of genetically modified fish.
The announcement by Sanders, who’s currently on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa, follows months of criticism of Califf, who came to the FDA early last year after a long career as a cardiologist and research director at Duke University.
Califf was given a friendly reception by the Republican committee members at his confirmation hearing in November. But, since then, Califf has spent many hours fending off questions and criticism, chiefly from the Democrats.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted unanimously to approve Califf’s nomination earlier this month, but Sanders was absent for the vote.
The “holds” on Califf’s nomination present a problem for both Republican and Democratic leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen by his colleagues as reluctant to go against Murkowski’s demand to support the salmon industry during an election year. The industry wants full labeling of genetically modified salmon, not the voluntary labeling currently proposed.
The Democratic leadership, meanwhile, would have to find a way to assuage both Sanders and Markey if they want to give Obama the permanent FDA chief he wants. Sanders’ office did not respond to a query asking whether there was anything Califf could do to win his support.
Murkowski told reporters after the committee’s confirmation hearing that she believed Califf was “not straightforward” with her about what he knew about the FDA’s plans on genetically modified fish.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, which has raised questions about Califf’s drug industry ties and his track record as an investigator, said she was pleased by Sanders’ move.
“It is encouraging to see senators’ reluctance to speed a nominee through the revolving door to head one of our biggest federal agencies. This third hold on Dr. Robert Califf’s nomination sends a clear message that the Senate is concerned about Califf,” she said.