The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Robert Califf to lead the Food and Drug Administration, 50-46, a much narrower vote than when he previously held the position during the Obama administration, though many thought the latest vote could be even closer.
Califf’s confirmation means the Biden administration has a permanent FDA commissioner during the COVID-19 pandemic after 13 months with longtime agency official Janet Woodcock acting as its leader.
Califf needed bipartisan support to cross the finish line. Retiring Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Roy Blunt of Missouri joined four Republicans who sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to confirm Califf.
At the last minute, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S-D., changed his “no” vote to “present” to pair with Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M, who would have voted in favor of the nomination. Lujan is absent from the Senate after suffering a stroke. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was absent following a recent COVID-19 diagnosis and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was also absent.
Califf had to cut deals with multiple lawmakers, trading policy promises for votes. Several Senate Democrats opposed the nomination due to his past ties to the pharmaceutical industry and handling of the opioid crisis when he previously led the FDA.
Califf also faced Republican objection due to his stance on medication abortion, which was expanded during his previous stint. Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group, said it would “key vote” the nomination. Several other anti-abortion groups also opposed Califf. Before the vote, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said from the floor that Califf has “an extreme agenda of putting abortion before the science.”
Some of the campaign against Califf was led by Democrats — especially those in states that struggled with the opioid crisis. Up until the last minute, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., rallied against the former Obama official.
Manchin said Tuesday that not enough has changed at the FDA since Califf was at the agency starting in 2016, and it needs new blood.
“This administration under Robert Califf will take the same old, same old. Nothing will change,” Manchin told his colleagues.