WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he would nominate Dr. Mark McClellan, head of the Food and Drug Administration, to take over as administrator of the Woodlawn agency that oversees the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
If confirmed by the Senate, McClellan, 40, will be taking charge of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as Bush's prescription-drug plan for seniors is implemented. Bush's plan to add drug coverage to Medicare, which won approval in Congress over Democratic objections, is expected to be hotly debated in the presidential campaign.
McClellan, a physician and economist who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers before going to the FDA and who helped shape Bush's Medicare plan, is from a well-connected Texas political family that is close to Bush. His brother, Scott, is the president's press secretary. His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is the comptroller of Texas and a former mayor of Austin, and is considered a possible future governor.
The press secretary did not hide the awkwardness of his position yesterday - heaping praise on his brother on behalf of the president.
"Bite my tongue," Scott McClellan said at the White House. "He is a highly qualified nominee who brings a tremendous amount of experience and expertise to the position." He added that his brother "is someone who certainly has a proven record of working in a bipartisan way to get things done."
McClellan commands respect across party lines.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who sought to block some of Bush's other choices for the FDA, saying they were too cozy with the pharmaceutical industry, called McClellan "a superb choice" to run Medicare and Medicaid. "He brings to the job a powerful intellect, a deep knowledge of the programs and a commitment to public service," Kennedy said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said he would schedule a nomination hearing for McClellan as soon as possible. The agency he would lead employs thousands of Baltimore-area residents.
"This position is so important," Grassley said, adding that McClellan "is well-regarded on Capitol Hill, and his background and expertise make him a strong candidate."
Still, McClellan stirred some criticism this week when the FDA announced that it was postponing a final decision on whether the drug Plan B, the so-called "morning-after pill" that can end pregnancies if taken within 72 hours of intercourse, could be sold over the counter. An FDA advisory panel endorsed the sale of the drug without a prescription.
Conservative groups and some Republican lawmakers who oppose use of the pill urged McClellan to delay allowing the drug to be sold over the counter. FDA officials said they wanted to study the science of the medication further. But some women's groups suggested that McClellan was bending to the wishes of Republicans.
"There are some instances where he deserves praise for keeping the agency on a science-based decision-making track," said Amy Allina, policy director for the National Women's Health Network. But deciding to delay a decision on Plan B, she said, showed McClellan "clearly seeming to respond to political pressures."
David Cutler, a Harvard economist who has conducted studies with McClellan, pointed to the FDA's push to approve more generic drugs as evidence that McClellan is not influenced by the pharmaceutical industry, which contributes heavily to Republicans.
Cutler said McClellan "cares about what the facts are and brings an analytical bent, not a political bent."