Nov. 17, 2015 8:51 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama’s choice to run the Food and Drug Administration faced a mostly gentle line of questioning Tuesday from the Senate committee considering his confirmation, with lawmakers focused on rising drug prices and the agency’s approval procedures.

Robert Califf, a cardiologist who served as a clinical trial researcher at Duke University, joined the FDA in February as the agency’s deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. If confirmed, he would be replacing Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who resigned in March.

Some health-care advocates have cast a critical eye on Dr. Califf’s research background, given his work on studies in part underwritten by pharmaceutical companies.

The Wall Street Journal in September reported that Dr. Califf was paid more than $200,000 in industry consulting fees between 2009 and early 2015.

Dr. Califf has said he donated the funds to nonprofit organizations, something he reiterated at Tuesday’s hearing.

Among legislators’ biggest concerns was the cost of pharmaceutical drugs, a growing political worry, with several lawmakers asking Dr. Califf about measures the FDA could take to keep costs down.

The FDA doesn’t set drug prices, but can influence them by approving generic drugs and other competitors.

Dr. Califf stressed the importance of bringing medical advances to patients “as fast and safely as possible.”

Asked about a “huge backlog” in generic drug approval, Dr. Califf said that a bulk of prescription drugs in America are generic, but agreed that the agency “can still do better.”

Though Dr. Califf was nominated by Mr. Obama, his toughest questioners at Tuesday’s hearing were Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, a Democratic contender for president.

It is “no secret” that Dr. Califf has had “significant financial support from the pharmaceutical industry,” Ms. Warren said.

The nominee refuted suggestions that pharmaceutical dollars biased his research at Duke. The contracts signed for industry-funded projects meant companies could “make suggestions but had no right to censor or change” findings, he said.

Duke’s research contracts with pharmaceutical companies at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding Dr. Califf would be made available, he said.

Industry has no part in the FDA’s approval process other than to make a medical product, Dr. Califf said. “The FDA’s role is to independently judge its application,” he said.

Mr. Sanders was the sole committee member to voice his opposition to Mr. Califf’s nomination, telling the medical researcher he was “not strong enough on the most important issue”—the high cost of prescription drugs.

“Millions of Americans can’t afford the costs of prescription drugs,” the Vermont senator said. “We need an FDA commissioner who’s going to be aggressive.”

Limited to a five-minute questioning period, many of the 22 committee members said they would submit additional written questions to Dr. Califf.

There is no date set for a decision, which could take months. His appointment requires confirmation by the full Senate.

Write to Emma Court at [email protected]