WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to head the Food and Drug Administration won Senate confirmation last week despite vocal opposition from a handful of lawmakers who blame lax federal policies on prescription pain medications for fueling the nation's opioid epidemic.
While there was little doubt the Senate would confirm Robert Califf as commissioner, opponents used Senate rules to delay a final vote and allow themselves time on the Senate floor to draw attention to the growing abuse of opioids across the nation.
Democratic Sens. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut as well as Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire say the FDA has too easily approved new opioid pain medications without considering the public health threat posed by such addictive medications.
Markey said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of opioid pills allowed to be sold in the nation — now up to 14 billion pills — and that has a direct correlation to the rise in overdoses from heroin and other opioids. More than 30,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014.
"The numbers are out of control. The overprescribing is out of control. We have to find a way to reduce dramatically the amount of drugs being sold legally in our country before you can ever reach illegal," he said.
As the FDA's deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco, Califf recently issued a statement saying the FDA would re-examine the "risk-benefit paradigm for opioids" to ensure that the agency considers the wider public health effects of opioids.
"We are determined to help defeat this epidemic through a science-based and continuously evolving approach," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supported Califf's nomination, saying that he has been reassured that the FDA is reassessing its approach to approving and regulating prescription painkillers.
"I believe Dr. Califf understands the dire nature of the opioid epidemic and, accordingly, I believe he is today the right person to lead the FDA in a new direction," McConnell said.
The Senate voted 89-4 to confirm Califf as FDA commissioner. He replaces Margaret Hamburg, who departed the agency in 2015. Stephen Ostroff, has been serving as acting commissioner.
Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted in favor.
The House last week approved legislation, largely along party lines, that would require federal land managers to promote and enhance sportsmen's access to public hunting, fishing and recreational shooting areas.
Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., spoke in favor of the bill, saying it provides a "package of commonsense" reforms that would remove obstacles that prevent or impede access to federal lands.
"This important legislation will sustain America's rich hunting and fishing traditions, improve access to our Federal lands for responsible outdoor sporting activities, and help ensure that the current and future generations of sportsmen and women are able to enjoy the sporting activities our country has to offer and what we hold dear," he said.
The Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, among other things, would make it harder for federal agencies to close land to hunting and fishing, authorize more money for shooting ranges on public land, limit the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate hunting and fishing equipment for toxic substances, and allow firearms at lakes and dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Democrats voiced opposition to many of the provisions, saying they would significantly hinder conservation efforts and fail to reauthorize two key resources — the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund.
"Simply put, this bill doesn't include the sporting community's top legislative priorities," said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.
The House approved the bill, 242-161. Reps. Cresent Hardy and Joe Heck, both R-Nev., voted in favor. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., voted against. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., did not vote.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The House rejected an amendment to the sportsmen's bill that would have declared the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off limits to oil drilling.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., proposed the amendment to "permanently preserve and protect this special place" as pristine wilderness.
"Allowing drilling in the Arctic refuge would irreparably damage one of our nation's last great wild places," he argued.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, objected, saying that the estimated 18 billion barrels of oil held in the coastal plain should be available for future needs. He also noted that the oil is just 74 miles away from an existing pipeline.
The House voted 227-176 to reject the amendment. Heck and Hardy voted against Huffman's proposal. Titus supported it. Amodei did not vote.