President Bush's nomination of Andrew von Eschenbach in March to be the FDA's permanent commissioner immediately ran into a brick wall. It rose in the form of Plan B, the ill-starred emergency contraceptive that the Bush administration has blocked from going over-the-counter.
The real story behind that block may never be known, but most knowledgeable observers agree it's a political payoff to religious conservatives whose support the president and his party still needs and who see the drug as either an abortifacient or as a likely catalyst of teenage promiscuity.
As his popularity sunk to record lows in March and Republicans on Capitol Hill showed signs of bolting in preparation for the November elections, Bush's Plan B block brought a counterblock from the left. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) said they would block von Eschenbach from a floor vote until the FDA makes a decision up or down on OTC Plan B.
The senators said they met with the nominee, and “he gave us no status and he couldn't give us any kind of timeline.” As they said this, the Senate chairman in charge of von Eschenbach's confirmation, Mike Enzi (R-WY), let it be known that he wants the White House to resolve the Plan B issue.
This is very unlikely to happen. Bush and his party can hardly afford to turn their backs on the religious right.
There's a growing feeling that it doesn't matter whether the FDA has a permanent commissioner or not. After all, in the 64 months since Bush's inauguration, the FDA has had a confirmed commissioner for less than 12 and we've all survived. There's no public clamor for confirmation.
It's a Mexican standoff, and my bet is it will stay this way until the religious right blinks.
Dickinson is editor of Dickinson's FDA Webview (fdaweb.com)