FDA Nominee Faces Another Block _ From Conservatives

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ First it was a handful of liberals blocking President Bush’s choice to head the Food and Drug Administration, demanding the agency end delays and make a decision on the over-the-counter sale of an emergency contraceptive pill opposed by the religious right.

Now that the “morning-after pill” has been approved for women 18 and over without a prescription and the Democratic objections have been dropped, two conservatives with their own agendas have stepped forward to thwart the formal confirmation of acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

“The FDA commissioner has to be the toughest job outside a Supreme Court justice to get passed here,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“It seems to be the nature of the position, a kind of Catch-22,” he said. “It has become a political football.”

On Wednesday (Sept. 20), Enzi’s committee unanimously approved von Eschenbach’s nomination by a voice vote, and sent it to the full Senate for consideration. Among those backing von Eschenbach were Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington, the two lawmakers who had previously objected to his confirmation over the morning-after pill.

But now, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has stepped into the fray, saying he will block von Eschenbach through a filibuster until the nominee takes action to remove the RU-486 abortion drug from the market.

“I believe a qualified FDA nominee would publicly discourage the use of RU-486 and take immediate steps to suspend the drug until a full investigation can be completed,” said DeMint. “Dr. von Eschenbach has now been the acting FDA commissioner for a year, yet he has done nothing to publicly discourage the use of this deadly drug.”

In addition to DeMint, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he will seek to prevent a full Senate vote on von Eschenbach until the nominee backs legalizing importation of some prescription drugs _ a position opposed by the Bush administration.

The Senate can overcome these objections through a time-consuming process and a motion requiring a 60-vote majority. But this may prove difficult in a Senate with a full agenda that is trying to recess by the end of September because of the November elections.

Enzi said behind-the-scenes discussions with DeMint and Vitter will take place in an effort to resolve the conflicts. But if the impasse continues, he said, it is possible the nomination could be brought up in the lame-duck session after the November elections.

President Bush could also bypass the Senate with an appointment during the Senate recess, but that would last for just one year. Von Eschenbach will continue heading the agency on an acting basis if there is no immediate action.

The FDA oversees the regulation of more than $1 trillion worth of food, drugs, cosmetics, animal feed, medical devices and other products annually. Roughly 25 percent of all consumer spending in the United States is on products regulated by the FDA.

(Robert Cohen writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

KRE/CM END COHEN

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