Senate vote on Robert Califf may put him back on track for top FDA job

WASHINGTON — The long-suffering Dr. Robert Califf, President Obama’s choice to head the Food and Drug Administration, may be getting back on track to win final approval from the Senate.

But his most vocal opponents are preparing to take a few last whacks at him, even as they’re realizing they can’t defeat him.

In a move designed to circumvent opposition to Califf, who was nominated in September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a procedural vote for Monday afternoon. If Califf wins the support of at least 60 senators in that vote, he would move on to a final confirmation vote — likely Tuesday — and his Senate opponents would lose their leverage to stop him.

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The move will likely vanquish the remaining senators — led by Democrats Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who disapprove of Califf because of his close ties to industry and what they consider a poor FDA response to the opioid epidemic.

Califf joined the FDA as a deputy commissioner in February 2015 after many years working at Duke University.

Privately, aides to the senators who are opposing Califf say the game is over, because Califf will likely get the 60 votes he needs on Monday.

But that won’t stop them from leading one last protest against him.

Both Manchin and Markey, who vowed to fight Califf’s confirmation due to the opioid issue, plan to talk at length on the Senate floor to convince their colleagues that the FDA needs to act more forcefully to protect the public from opioid addiction.

Both senators will try to use most, if not all, of the 30 hours of debate that would be allowed between Monday’s procedural vote and a final confirmation vote. They’re also holding a press conference on Monday to draw more attention to their concerns.

If Califf prevails in Monday’s vote, it won’t count as an actual filibuster because the senators won’t have the power to stop him.

“We can’t filibuster, but we are going to use up all of the 30 hours to make our case as to why we feel that Dr. Califf is not the right person to lead the FDA,” said Manchin’s spokesman Jonathan Kott. “He’s going to get up and talk for as long as he can.”

Kott said Manchin plans to read letters from West Virginians about how the opioid crisis has hurt their families. Asked if Manchin could last 30 hours, Kott said the senator will wear comfortable shoes. His main concern was bathroom breaks, Kott said.

Markey’s spokeswoman Giselle Barry said he also planned to speak about the issue on the Senate floor both Monday and Tuesday.

“In addition to sharing stories from Massachusetts,” Barry said, “we’ll also be talking about his particular concerns with the FDA’s opioid approval process; the lack of advisory committees; this very contradictory term of ‘abuse deterrent’ and his general concerns about the FDA not being a particularly tough cop on the beat.”

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