Senate Confirms Henney as FDA's New Chief

WASHINGTON, D.C.--After blocking the nomination of oncologist Jane Henney to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for several weeks, Republican Senator Don Nickles (R-OK) relented yesterday, and the Senate today approved Henney on a voice vote. Had Nickles not withdrawn his opposition, the drug safety agency--which has been without a permanent chief since David Kessler left 20 months ago--might have remained leaderless until next year.

Henney's confirmation drew praise from Carl Feldbaum, president of the 800-member Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), among others. BIO had lobbied Senate Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) to move the nomination forward. Henney is well equipped to "lead this critical federal agency into the 21st century," Feldbaum said. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Donna Shalala also celebrated the vote in a statement, predicting that Henney "will work to keep FDA agile and responsive."

Nickles had used his privilege as a senator to put a "hold" on the nomination. In a speech on 20 October, he said he felt that FDA was pursuing "a liberal political agenda" and reaching beyond its authority in attempting to regulate teenage smoking at the local level. He wanted the aggressive policies curbed. Second, he also wanted a promise that the FDA would not try to promote the commercial development of the French anticonception pill mifepristone, also known as RU-486. Third, Nickles wanted an assurance from FDA's parent agency, HHS, that it would not create a legal exemption permitting federal funds to be used to finance abortions for women in poor mental health.

On all three points, Nickles announced to the Senate yesterday, he obtained written assurances in the past week from Henney and HHS Secretary Donna Shalala that the government would adhere to his recommendations. With these pledges in hand, Nickles announced that he had met with Henney and that "I am confident that she will be a very able administrator who will not play politics."