WASHINGTON _ Moderate Republican James Jeffords, ofVermont, appears poised to take over the chairmanship of the SenateLabor and Human Resources Committee that was vacated whenNancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) retired at the end of the 104th Congress.

Ending weeks of speculation over the possibility of a fight over theleadership of the committee, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) announcedMonday evening that he will not challenge Jeffords for the chair.

In a written statement, Coats said that "it is important, particularly atthis moment, for Republicans to be united as we approach the newsession of Congress." He also promised to "ensure that the LaborCommittee and its leadership reflect the mainstream of Republicanconviction."

Jeffords will take over a committee that during the first few monthsof the 105th Congress must conduct confirmation hearings for theClinton Administration's candidates to head the Department of Laborand the FDA. The committee also will be responsible for initiatingefforts to reform the FDA and to reauthorize the Prescription DrugUser Fee Act (PDUFA) which runs out in October.

Jeffords, who supported Kassebaum's FDA reform bill when it cameout of committee, has yet to determine the details of any FDA reformthat he would support. However, Jefford's press secretary, ErikSmulson told BioWorld Today that "FDA reform is an issue that willbe in front of the committee during this Congress."

While it is unlikely that there will be any moves toward FDA reformbefore a new commissioner is in place, Carl Feldbaum, president ofthe Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), sees this as a time ofgreat opportunity.

"As a moderate Republican, Jeffords has built strong ties across theaisle," said Feldbaum. "He has the ability to put together bipartisanlegislation for FDA modernization."

Kassebaum's attempt at FDA reform came late during one of themost partisan and contentious sessions of Congress in recent history.Feldbaum maintained that when presidential election politics wereadded in to the brew, the Kassebaum bill had little chance of beingenacted into law. In fact, the issue never made it to the Senate floorfor a vote.

Because Jeffords is a moderate, Feldbaum said he suspects Jeffordswill be able to produce a bill that will gain wide support. "Jeffordsand Mikulski [Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)] could sponsor a billthat is likely to pass," said Feldbaum.

However, Feldbaum noted that an FDA reform bill is not the onlymeans to make needed changes in the agency. The confirmationhearings, for example, may offer an opportunity to produce reformsin the from of promises made to senators.

"The confirmation hearings could be a catalyst for change," saidFeldbaum. "As has become customary over the past few years,members of Congress will ask for specific commitments from thenominees."

Because the negotiations over PDUFA are also likely to result inchanges in agency practice, Feldbaum said he sees yet anotheropportunity to make the FDA more responsive to the needs of thebiotech industry.

"When you look at it, the 105th congress is much more interesting interms of its potential for action than the 104th," Feldbaum said. n

-- Lisa Seachrist Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.