President Barack Obama's choice for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration won easy approval from a Senate panel Tuesday, but two senators — a Republican and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — threatened to block the nominee, Dr. Robert Califf.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she will hold up a vote on the Senate floor until she has reassurances from the agency that it will write rules for labeling genetically modified salmon. The Alaska Republican has said the engineered salmon approved by the FDA last year could be harmful to her state's wild salmon industry.
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Califf is now the No. 2 official at the agency, which regulates consumer products from medications to seafood to e-cigarettes. He was a prominent cardiologist and medical researcher at Duke University for more than 30 years.
Murkowski said she is angry that she didn't get more of a warning about the agency's approval of the modified fish, which she has long opposed. The FDA approved the salmon two days after Califf's November confirmation hearing.
"If they are trying to get my support, they sure fumbled that ball," she said after the Senate panel approved the nomination on a voice vote.
Sanders, I-Vt., also opposes Califf's nomination. The presidential contender did not attend the committee meeting, but his office said he would have voted no.
Sanders has said the country needs an FDA commissioner who will stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and that Califf is "not that person." He said he is also considering a hold on the nomination.
Some Democrats have raised concerns about Califf's ties to industry. In 2006, Califf founded the Duke University Clinical Research Institute, a contract research group that has conducted studies for virtually all of the world's largest drugmakers. Government disclosure forms show that Califf received more than $29,000 in consulting fees, travel, meals and other payments from drugmakers in 2014.
Califf has already recused himself from dealing with certain companies to avoid conflicts of interest.
"I think if you look at my record you'll find I've never been a proponent of lowering standards," Califf said during his nomination hearing. He said he declined to do many studies because drug companies wouldn't meet his criteria for data access.
Califf's nomination does have the support of the Republican chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said Califf has been thoroughly vetted, and he is confident that Califf can lead the agency "fairly and impartially."
As head of the FDA, Califf would inherit a raft of projects and potential challenges, including unfinished tobacco regulations and food safety and labeling reforms.
Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg left the job early last year. The FDA's chief scientist, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, is serving as acting head of the agency.