WASHINGTON — The Senate approved Mark B. McClellan's nomination early today to head the government's mammoth Medicare program, despite his rankling of many in Congress by opposing the importation of prescription drugs.
Senators confirmed President Bush's choice by voice vote. At a Senate committee hearing Thursday, McClellan seemingly did little to satisfy lawmakers who want the administration to reverse itself and let Americans buy prescription drugs entering the country from Canada and elsewhere.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who had delayed the nomination, said he decided to let it proceed after becoming convinced that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had the votes needed for approval.
Dorgan also said Frist had agreed to commit to a process that could eventually allow the importation of drugs.
"We're trying to move the ball forward here, to make progress" toward the use of imported drugs, Dorgan said in a brief interview.
McClellan, who is commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has argued that lifting the ban could result in patients receiving unsafe drugs.
Drug importation has broad support in Congress and among the public. Anger about rising drug prices in the United States is outweighing concerns about the safety of drugs purchased abroad, especially over the Internet.
During debate last year on Medicare prescription drug legislation, Republican congressional leaders and the White House blocked inclusion of a plan that would have allowed drug imports. Bush signed legislation in December adding drug benefits to the huge health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
At a Senate hearing, McClellan did not commit to supporting legalized importation of drugs. But he pledged to work with senators who are developing legislation to address safety issues, such as giving the FDA more money for drug inspections, that McClellan and other government officials have identified.
"We're going to be working hard, with help from the public, to answer these questions about whether and how imported drugs would be safe," McClellan told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Dorgan said in response, "There's no evidence you've been interested in that at all."
McClellan is part of a government task force to study drug importation, as required by the Medicare law. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Wednesday that he decided not to have McClellan lead the study, reversing course after lawmakers complained that it would be one-sided under McClellan's direction. The panel is to have its first public meeting next week.