Senate panel advances FDA nominee

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The Senate Health committee on Tuesday advanced to the full Senate the nomination of Dr. Robert Califf to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. 

Califf, a cardiologist and longtime Duke University researcher, joined the FDA as a deputy commissioner in February. 

He has had relatively smooth sailing in the confirmation process and received praise from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday. 

Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Overnight Healthcare: Mysterious new Zika case | Mental health bill in doubt | Teletraining to fight opioids Hopes dim for mental health deal MORE (R-Tenn.) touted Califf's “impressive” qualifications and noted that having a confirmed head of the FDA is important at a time when so much “exciting science” and possible new medical breakthroughs are happening.

What blowback Califf has received came from the left.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersInterim DNC chair to impose 'tough standards' after email leaks Meet the rising Dem star positioned to help Clinton on gun control Sunday shows preview: Convention cleanup, Russian intrigue MORE (I-Vt.), a presidential candidate, previously announced he will oppose the nomination, saying that Califf’s ties to the drug industry are too tight. Califf faced some scrutiny over industry-funded studies while at Duke. 

“His extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry give me no reason to believe that he would make the FDA work for ordinary Americans,” Sanders said in a statement on Tuesday after voting against the nomination by proxy. 

However, Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayFlorida: 'High likelihood' of first Zika transmission in the US Our children, our future – bridging the partisan divide Overnight Energy: Officials close in on new global emissions deal MORE (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, on Tuesday defended Califf and applauded his “commitment to transparency in relationships with industry.”

Califf's nomination comes as the FDA is in the spotlight. The health panel is working on companion legislation to the House-passed 21st Century Cures Act, which aims to speed up the agency's approval process for new drugs and boost funding medical research. 

Alexander last year said that the committee would finish its work on the bill by the end of 2015, but the panel has not released a bill, much less advanced it to the full Senate.

Still, Alexander said Tuesday that it is a priority in the new year. “We should finish our work on this bill, and I’m committed to doing it in a bipartisan way that allows amendments,” he said. 

Controversy over high drug prices is also intensifying. Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's 12:30 Report Why Kaine is the right choice for Clinton Report: More, stronger cyber attacks to flood networks MORE (D-R.I.) called for action to deal with drug companies that hike the prices for drugs that have little competition, often because they treat rare diseases. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense The Trail 2016: Words matter Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early MORE (R-Maine) has also been tackling the issue with a Senate Aging Committee investigation.

One speed bump in the way of Califf’s nomination could be concerns from Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Big Oil makes a push for risky and reckless Arctic drilling GOP divided over 0M for climate fund MORE (R-Alaska) over the FDA’s approval of genetically modified salmon as food. 

She said Tuesday that she will push for clear labeling guidelines so consumers are aware that the fish is genetically modified. 

Alexander, though, responded that he wants the full Senate to confirm Califf soon.

“If there are issues, I hope those conversations can be speedy,” he said.