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Senate confirms Califf as new FDA chief with near unanimous vote

Robert McKinnon Califf, nominated in September, was confirmed by a vote of 89-to-4.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Feb. 24, 2016 at 3:28 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Although GOP lawmakers have pledged not to give any Supreme Court justice nominee from President Barack Obama a confirmation hearing, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday did approve the administration's selection of Robert McKinnon Califf as new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Califf, a longtime cardiologist and medical researcher at Duke University, was confirmed overwhelmingly by a vote of 89-to-4.

"I commend the Senate for their bipartisan vote today and am pleased that President Obama's nominee, Dr. Robert Califf, will become the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration," Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement. "Dr. Califf is the right person with the right experience to build on the FDA's unsurpassed record of protecting public health while encouraging innovation and the introduction of new life-saving therapies to the market."

Burwell noted that Califf will aid in the agency's continuing mission, "from ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the medical products we use, to protecting the nation's food supply and implementing its oversight of tobacco products, to furthering our efforts to combat opioid abuse."

Califf was nominated by Obama in September but his confirmation was briefly stymied from a handful of opponents -- including Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has questioned his ability to lead the FDA after a 2014 financial disclosure showed that part of his salary at Duke University was underwritten by multiple large drug companies, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

A native of South Carolina, Califf replaces Margaret Hamburg as FDA commissioner. She led the agency for six years, during which time several new drugs were approved, before her departure in March.

One of the primary projects Califf inherits as the new FDA chief is a 2010 effort, started by Hamburg, to revamp the country's food safety system. The goal of the project is to make the agency more proactive in food safety matters, rather than merely reactive to threats like outbreaks and contamination.

The four nay votes were cast by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Seven senators did not vote on Califf's confirmation -- including Sanders and Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Califf's confirmation comes as debate heats up over the possibility of Obama nominating a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia. GOP senators in recent days have said they won't give an Obama nominee a confirmation hearing, although the president has said they have a constitutional obligation to do so.

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