RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DON GONYEA, host:

And I'm Don Gonyea.

A Senate committee this morning takes up the nomination of Andrew von Eschenbach to head the Food and Drug Administration. Not coincidentally, the FDA yesterday took its first action in a year on the long-stalled request to allow the morning-after birth control pill to be sold without a prescription.

NPR's Julie Rovner has more.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

It's been more than three years since the maker of the morning-after contraceptive called Plan B asked the FDA to allow the drug to be sold over-the-counter. Plan B, which is not the same as the abortion pill RU-486, can prevent most pregnancies if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Still, the issue has been controversial. During those three years, two FDA commissioners have come and gone, and now a third nominee is before the Senate. Yesterday, the FDA summoned the drug's manufacturer - Barr Pharmaceuticals - to discuss whether to limit non-prescription sales to those age 18 and over, and how to enforce those age restrictions. Barr originally asked that only younger teens, those under 16, be required to get a doctor's permission.

FDA Spokeswoman Susan Bro says the FDA's latest action on the Plan B over-the-counter request was intentionally timed to coincide with today's hearing. She says von Eschenbach wants to assure the Senate Health Committee that the matter can be resolved, possibly in the next few weeks.

Ms. SUSAN BRO (FDA Spokeswoman): He felt this was very important - given the divisive issue that this has been - that in order to move his very ambitious and critical agenda for FDA forward, that he provide a framework under which there may be a path forward for this treatment.

ROVNER: But the senators who've been blocking a vote on von Eschenbach's nomination say they're not impressed by this latest action. In a conference call with reporters, Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington said they were in almost exactly the same place a year ago when the Bush administration promised an up or down ruling by last September 1st. They allowed former Commissioner Lester Crawford to be confirmed by the Senate. Then, at the end of August, Crawford announced that rather than make a decision, he would seek public comment instead. Murray says they won't accept a similar promise this time.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): Fool me once, uh, we're not going to go there again. We will hold this nominee until we get a decision, yes or no, on Plan B.

ROVNER: The FDA has long been a trouble spot for the Bush administration, where politics and science often collide. While the agency regulates products accounting for 25 cents of every dollar spent in the U.S., the FDA has only had a confirmed commissioner for 18 months of the past five and a half years.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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