Congress

Senate panel approves Trump's FDA nominee

Senators ask questions about the FDA's plans for regulating e-cigarettes

Stephen Hahn, nominee to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Nov. 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A Senate panel approved President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration amid questions from both parties about the agency’s plans for regulating flavored e-cigarettes.

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 18-5 to advance to the Senate floor the nomination of medical executive and doctor Stephen Hahn.

[FDA nominee faces bipartisan grilling on Trump's vaping plan]

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he hoped the Senate would confirm Hahn before the end of the year.

“There is a lot the FDA needs to do,” he said, calling Hahn “well prepared to lead the FDA at this critical time.”

Hahn is the chief medical officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the country’s leading cancer treatment hospitals and research institutes. Its budget is greater than $5 billion, with 21,000 employees — similar in size to the FDA— and it conducts more than 1,000 clinical trials a year.

Despite the heated nature of the e-cigarette debate in Washington, Hahn hasn’t been a polarizing nominee. He earned support from all committee Republicans and most of its Democrats, whose 11 members were split 6-5.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, voted against the nomination. She said she was concerned with Hahn’s short record of government service — he was a researcher at the National Institutes of Health early in his career — and lack of experience running an organization as complex as the FDA.

But she said the main reason for her opposition were Hahn’s answers about e-cigarettes during his confirmation hearing. At the time, Hahn faced questions from members of both parties about whether he would push the Trump administration to adopt a comprehensive ban of flavored nicotine in e-cigarettes. 

Trump originally proposed such a plan in September, but by November he had backed away from it under pressure from vaping advocates, the tobacco and vaping industries, and conservative groups who argued it would alienate voters.

Hahn said youth e-cigarette use “requires bold action” and said his actions would “be guided by science and data and congruent with the law.” But he stopped short of disclosing his personal position on the flavor ban or what he would urge his future bosses to do.

“I was particularly concerned that when pressed several times by members on both sides of the aisle, Dr. Hahn refused to commit to implementing a strong policy to clear non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes that have not undergone FDA review from the market,” Murray said. “That is a big red flag for me and why I will be voting against his nomination.”

Other Democrats and Republicans who also want the administration to take a hard line on flavored e-cigarettes decided to support Hahn.

Some, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the nominee's background as a radiation oncologist who has treated lung cancer patients is good experience for overseeing the response to youth vaping.

“Dr. Hahn has promised to lead with integrity, ensure transparency, and put the American people’s interests first. I will hold him to that standard,” Kaine said in a statement.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, ultimately backed Hahn but said he did so “with some degree of concern.” Like Murray, he wasn’t satisfied with Hahn’s answers on e-cigarettes during his confirmation hearing.

“I believe he’s a solid professional with the right instinct and the right record, but I do intend to insist that he communicate to us, this committee and to the nation about how his decisions are being carried out and being made with regards to this national epidemic,” Romney said.

The panel also approved three labor nominees by voice vote: Richard Giacolone to be the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director, and Amanda Wood Laihow and Cynthia Attwood to be members of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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