But some progressive and centrist Democrats expressed trepidation with Califf’s nomination Tuesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would vote no due to Califf’s “revolving door” work for industry that netted him millions.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has made clearer than ever the choice between pharmaceutical profits and the health of our people,” Sanders said in a statement after the hearing. “In this critical moment, Dr. Califf is not the leader Americans need at the FDA.”
West Virginia’s Joe Manchin suggested in a statement before the hearing he’s also unlikely to support the nomination. “I can’t fathom why we would confirm someone whose actions failed to swiftly curb the tide of the opioid epidemic and protect the public’s health, especially someone who has already helmed FDA as its commissioner,” the Democrat said.
And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told POLITICO he has “very strong reservations” about Califf, adding there has been “nothing so far to dispel” his concerns.
Neither Manchin nor Blumenthal are members of the health committee, but their positions show Democratic leadership likely needs at least a few Republicans to ensure Califf’s confirmation goes through.
Califf — who most recently led health strategy and policy at Google’s parent, Alphabet — faced the toughest questions about past FDA decisions to approve prescription pain medicines.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pressed Califf on whether he agreed with the FDA’s decisions to change OxyContin’s indication to include continuous, long-term pain management in the early 2000s.
However, he fell short of saying that the pain medicines should be relabeled immediately. “I think as the evidence comes in we are going to need to aggressively look at relabeling,” Califf said.
“The evidence has been here for a long time,” Hassan retorted. “It’s the evidence of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, dying in this country.”
She later told POLITICO she hasn’t decided yet whether to support Califf’s nomination. And Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told POLITICO he’s also undecided on Califf until he receives answers to his own questions about opioids.
“I am not okay with the United States continuing down the path of what has been a track record of more constituents dying because data and science and expertise has been ignored by some of these committees and these recommendations,” Luján said, adding that he needs “to understand what exactly the plan is, looking at that labeling and changes.”
Not all Republican committee members are ready to back Califf. Sens. Tim Scott (S.C) and Mitt Romney (Utah) are undecided.
Rand Paul, a prominent critic of the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response, didn’t attend the confirmation hearing this morning. His office did not respond when asked why he was not present.
Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is “working quickly” with Burr to schedule a committee vote on Califf’s nomination, a Democratic committee aide said. That’s likely to stretch into the new year: Lawmakers can submit questions for the record up until 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, and the hearing record will close on Dec. 29.
Califf can already count on Burr — the top Republican on the HELP Committee — to whip Republicans to ultimately support Biden’s pick to lead the FDA.
“I encourage my colleagues to support the nomination of Rob Califf and to do that expeditiously,” Burr said.