PRESIDENT Bush may have duped Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Patty Murray again. The two need a Plan B for dealing with the administration's political interference in the approval of over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill because their first plan - delaying Food and Drug Administration commissioner confirmations - appears to be a two-time loser.
In January, 2005, Democrats Clinton and Murray blocked a confirmation vote on acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford because the agency had dawdled on approving over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B.
They relented when the Bush Administration promised FDA action on the pill by last September. An FDA decision had been delayed by nearly two years at that point, after an FDA advisory panel voted 23-4 in December, 2003, to recommend Plan B sales without a prescription after FDA scientists found it to be safe and effective. It has been available for 25 years - and, now, in 45 countries - without prescription.
Last summer, the Senate confirmed Mr. Crawford. Then, just days before the Sept. 1 deadline, the FDA announced that it would indefinitely defer its decision on Plan B while it studied the effect of over-the-counter sales on teenagers. Gotcha, Senators Clinton and Murray!
Mr. Crawford abruptly quit in September, and President Bush faced yet another FDA vacancy. In March, he appointed Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, then director of the National Cancer Institute, to serve as acting commissioner.
Though aware of his predecessor's problems with Senator Clinton of New York and Senator Murray of Washington state, Dr. von Eschenbach did nothing about Plan B until last Monday, the day before his confirmation hearing. He sent a letter to Plan B's manufacturer, Duramed Research, Inc., saying the FDA was willing to start talking again about over-the-counter sales if Duramed met certain conditions.
The senators renewed their threat to suspend confirmation until the FDA acted on Plan B. It may be an idle threat, however, because President Bush is expected to give Dr. von Eschenbach a recess appointment - for which he will not need Senate approval - if the Senate fails to act before its summer vacation.
That would give the FDA chief months to do nothing on Plan B before he'd face Senate confirmation again.
At the hearing Tuesday, Dr. von Eschenbach committed himself to "sound science." If he's true to his word, then he must approve over-the-counter sales of this safe drug, which prevents conception when taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse.
If he's true to his word, he'll do it and face the Bush backlash. He can always quit. Mr. Crawford did. Dr. von Eschenbach needs to do what's scientifically sound for American women.