The Senate confirmed President Biden‘s nominee for FDA commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf, on Tuesday with a vote of 50 to 46, with one senator voting present, despite several Democrats opposing the selection and Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., absent as he recovers from a stroke.
While Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., all went against the administration by voting against Califf, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., all voted for him. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., withdrew his no vote and voted present to sync up with Luján.
Califf previously held the office during the end of the Obama administration from February 2016 to January 2017, and he has been criticized for not taking appropriate steps to combat the opioid crisis. Some of the toughest questions Califf faced during his December confirmation hearing came from Democrats.
“Why didn’t you take action to change the oxycontin label when you led the FDA in 2016?” Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked the hearing, in one of several contentious exchanges.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., challenged Califf at the hearing over his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, noting that he is one of the latest examples of former FDA commissioners to go on to a job or board position with a pharmaceutical company.
“At a time when the American people are outraged by the high cost of prescription drugs … what kind of comfort can you give to the American people when you have been so closely tied to the pharmaceutical industry yourself?” Sanders asked.
Califf assured Sanders that he is “a physician first and foremost,” but Sanders was not convinced, voting against Califf on Tuesday.
Democratic Sens. Blumenthal, Manchin, and Markey all spoke out against Califf’s nomination before the vote, with Manchin noting that his state has been hit particularly hard by opioid abuse. The West Virginian declared back in December that he would not vote for Califf.
“Why we would confirm someone whose actions failed to swiftly curb the tide of the opioid epidemic?” Manchin questioned. “During Dr. Califf’s previous tenure as FDA commissioner, drug-related overdoses went up. Five years later, they are up again, this time at a record number.”
Manchin noted at the time that more than half a million Americans had died since the FDA first approved Oxycontin in 1995,. He also blasted Califf for indicating that he would keep current acting FDA commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock with the agency after she had “directly overseen the approval of numerous highly addictive drugs to market, as part of FDA leadership.”
“We need a leader who is ready for reform in pursuit of improving public health outcomes and Dr. Califf is not that candidate,” Manchin added.
Blumenthal similarly stressed the need for a change at the top of the agency, and he echoed the concern expressed by Sanders over Califf’s industry connections.
“I believe that his ties to the pharmaceutical industry as well as other issues that have been raised in the confirmation process, show me that there are better potential nominees,” Blumenthal said, noting that he also opposed Califf when he was confirmed in 2016. “And I want someone who will really break with the past. We need a new era at the FDA. And that hope, combined with my reservations about his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, persuade me to vote against him.”
The Republican Burr, however, took the opportunity to vocalize his support prior to the vote, stating that Califf “will provide the leadership needed to promote today’s biomedical advancements.” He also argued that the last time he served in the role, Califf was not in office long enough to accomplish much of anything, let alone long enough to be blamed for doing anything wrong.