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Senate panel advances NIH nominee Bertagnolli

HELP Chairman Bernie Sanders was opposed in 15-6 vote

A Senate panel advanced the nomination of Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday.
A Senate panel advanced the nomination of Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After months of back and forth, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Wednesday advanced the nomination of Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health by a vote of 15-6, with ranking member Bill Cassidy, R-La., voting for President Joe Biden’s nominee and Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., opposing it.

“I like her, but I think this is a moment where we need leadership with the NIH which is really prepared to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders said of Bertagnolli just ahead of the vote. 

Sanders has long used Bertagnolli’s nomination to make a point about the Biden administration’s prescription drug policy. When Biden first announced plans to nominate Bertagnolli in May, Sanders delayed her confirmation hearing for months because of concerns that the Biden administration was not doing enough to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Then, during a committee hearing last week, Sanders asked Bertagnolli if she would commit to reinstating and expanding the reasonable pricing clause and use march-in rights to forcibly lower drug costs. Bertagnolli’s reluctance to commit to such tactics disappointed Sanders, but helped earn her bipartisan support among others on the committee.

Cassidy said he appreciated Bertagnolli’s resistance to committing to march-in rights or reasonable pricing clauses, policies Cassidy called counterproductive, but he told the current National Cancer Institute director she would have her work cut out for her rebuilding trust with committee Republicans.

He listed a litany of policy concerns, including questions about fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell research, but conceded that she is qualified for the job. 

Despite Sanders’ disapproval, all other committee Democrats fell in line. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Bertagnolli’s accomplishments “leave no doubt that she is an excellent choice to lead the NIH” and encouraged her colleagues to support her confirmation, noting the NIH’s top job has been vacant for over a year.

Though several Republicans voted no on Bertagnolli’s confirmation, she earned the support of moderate members, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, among others. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., typically a conservative vote, also supported her confirmation, an indication Bertagnolli could receive wide bipartisan support on the Senate floor.  

The committee also favorably reported out three other Labor nominees, including Charlotte Burrows to be chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Erika McEntarfer to be commissioner of Labor Statistics and Amanda Wood Laihow to be a member of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Both Wood Laihow and McEntafer received unanimous support. Burrows’ vote was split along partisan lines.

Cassidy opposed Burrows’ confirmation because of implementation of an abortion provision in the law known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act categorizing abortion as a medical procedure.

“The commission has established a pattern of ignoring the congressional intent and clear statutory language to insert their own political agenda,” Cassidy said of the EEOC.

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