WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats may have put Condoleezza Rice on the hot seat before confirming her as secretary of state, but senators had no objections Wednesday to two other Cabinet nominees.
Senators approved by voice vote the confirmation of Mike Leavitt (search) to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Jim Nicholson (search) to head the Veterans Affairs Department. They are replacing Tommy Thompson and Anthony Principi, respectively.
Both nominees faced confirmation hearings in committees in the last week or so, but neither confronted the same type of rigorous objections as Rice or attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales, whose nomination was approved Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line 10-8 vote. Democrats vow to hold debates on the Senate floor before Gonzales is confirmed.
During his two-hour confirmation before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Leavitt said that he expected a new head to be named to the Food and Drug Administration, but that it was up to President Bush to make the final decision on who would be named. Leavitt also appeared at a separate confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee.
The FDA has been without a commissioner since March 2004, when the Senate confirmed then-director Mark McClellan (search) to oversee the agency that runs the Medicaid and Medicare programs.
So far, the only person mentioned as a possible, permanent replacement for McClellan is Lester Crawford, the acting FDA commissioner, a Senate aide said.
A former Utah governor, Leavitt, 53, came to Washington, D.C., in 2003 to replace Christine Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (search). In his new post, he will run the $550 billion, 66,000-employee Health and Human Services Department, which includes the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
Among the chief topics he will face is the drug-approval process the FDA uses. Several arthritis drugs have recently been pulled from the market because of increased risk of heart problems and strokes.
Leavitt will also be responsible for the roll out of a new Medicare (search) prescription drug program. Medicaid (search), the federal-state program that provides health care to the poor, is also under Leavitt's purview. He has said states need more flexibility to decide how to structure the program because rising costs are eating away at other areas of their budgets.
Nicholson, who was approved during his confirmation hearing, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday that as head of the VA Department, he would look into reported disparities in disability compensation from state to state.
Formerly U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a chairman of the Republican National Committee, Nicholson said disability benefits should not vary based on where a veteran lives.
"Veterans' entitlement to federal benefits is the same regardless of where in this country they may reside," Nicholson, a decorated Army veteran, said. "This is really a high priority for me, to really get my arms around this."
Nicholson will oversee 230,000 employees responsible for ensuring that the nation's veterans receive proper health care and other benefits. His agency will face challenges, especially for veterans returning from Iraq who will have physical and mental health disabilities.
The effect of military base closures on veterans' health care will also be a priority. In addition, he is likely to face a battle with administration officials over an anticipated tight budget proposal for his agency.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.