WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats threatened Wednesday to block the confirmations of President Bush's nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said they were placing parliamentary holds on the confirmation of Stephen L. Johnson as EPA administrator because he had not canceled a controversial program that would pay families to videotape the effect of pesticide exposure on infants through routine spraying in their homes.
In a separate move, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said they would block the confirmation of Lester Crawford as FDA administrator because of the agency's delay in deciding whether to approve the "morning-after" birth control pill for sale without a prescription.
The confirmation showdowns arose from disputes over policies and programs within the two agencies and are not part of any coordinated action, Senate aides said.
But the similar actions appeared to signal a willingness on the part of Democrats to challenge the president more aggressively, and they could complicate White House efforts to win bipartisan support on such issues as Social Security restructuring.
The White House said it intended to stand behind Johnson, a 24-year EPA official who has headed the agency's pesticide programs since 2001, and Crawford, a pharmacologist who has served as the FDA's acting commissioner for about a year.
"We will continue to work with the senators to see to it that the president's nominees are confirmed," said White House spokeswoman Erin Healy.
The nominations of Johnson and Crawford were part of a second-term shuffle in which nine of 15 Cabinet portfolios changed hands. Although neither the EPA nor the FDA is a Cabinet department, both are high-profile agencies.
Boxer, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was asking Senate leaders to place a parliamentary hold on Johnson's nomination "until further notice," effectively blocking it from coming to a vote on the Senate floor.
She said she decided to take the unusual step after Johnson told her committee that he had suspended -- but not canceled -- a program that proposed to pay 60 Florida families to record the effects of pesticide exposure on their infant children.
"Until this program is canceled -- no ifs, ands or buts -- I am putting a hold on this," Boxer said after the hearing. "This is completely beyond the bounds. It's a horrible idea. It's an immoral idea. It's harmful to these children."
The conflict in Johnson's nomination involves the Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study, a two-year program that was in the process of signing up participants when Johnson suspended it in the fall. Sixty Duval County families were to receive $970 each -- plus a camcorder and children's clothing -- for letting agency officials track the effect of pesticide exposure on children in their first year of life. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group, was to provide $2 million of the program's $9-million budget.
"The government should not be asking families to turn their babies into guinea pigs," Nelson said in a statement. "They should be protecting children, not exposing them to pesticides."
Johnson told the Senate committee he had suspended the program after questions were raised about its propriety and said he was awaiting the results of an external scientific and ethical review before deciding whether it should proceed.
"I will ensure that EPA's research meets the highest ethical standards," Johnson said in a letter to Boxer released by his office after the hearing.
Murray and Clinton announced their move to block Crawford's confirmation after receiving a briefing from the nominee and other FDA officials on the status of the emergency contraceptive.
"We had a meeting and we found it very unsatisfactory," Murray said. "They were unwilling to give us a clear timeline. The FDA is saying they are trying to cross all the Ts and dot all the I's on this application because of fear of litigation, which is not a scientific reason to delay approval."
The morning-after pill, marketed by Barr Laboratories Inc. under the brand name Plan B, does not induce an abortion; it works by stopping ovulation or interfering with fertilization or implantation if a woman takes it within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Currently it is only available by prescription. In December 2003, an FDA expert advisory panel voted 23-4 to make the drug available without a prescription.
But the FDA overruled that recommendation, citing concerns that girls younger than 16 might not be able to use the drug safely without the advice of a doctor. Some religious and social conservatives have complained that making Plan B widely available would encourage promiscuity. Barr submitted a new application to the FDA, requesting approval to sell the drug to those 16 and older without a prescription. That proposal is now before the agency.