Senate confirms surgeon general despite opposition of National Rifle Association

Senate confirms surgeon general despite opposition of National Rifle Association
© Greg Nash

The Senate on Monday confirmed Dr. Vivek Murthy as the next surgeon general of the United States over the objections of gun rights advocates.

Murthy, a 36-year old physician, was approved 51-43 as the nation’s top doctor despite opposition from the GOP for his support of gun control and ObamaCare. Three Democrats voted against him, while Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkThis week: Trump heads to Capitol Hill Trump attending Senate GOP lunch Tuesday High stakes as Trump heads to Hill MORE (Ill.) was the only Republican to vote in favor.

President Obama hailed the vote and said Murthy will “hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.”

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“Combined with the crucial support for fighting Ebola included in the bill to fund our government next year, Vivek’s confirmation makes us better positioned to save lives around the world and protect the American people here at home,” he said.

Murthy's nomination had been held up for more than a year after conservative groups, led by the National Rifle Association, publicized tweets in which he called guns a “public health issue.” He had previously declared support for policies such as background checks and ammunition limits and accused members of Congress of “playing politics” with guns because they were “scared of the NRA.”

Lobbyists for gun groups, including the National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF), had been applying pressure to Senate offices over the last two weeks to try and stop Murthy’s confirmation.

Larry Keane, the senior vice president of NSSF, said his organization was calling for the confirmation of the acting surgeon general, Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak, because “he has not injected himself” into the politics of gun control.

“We actually think the acting surgeon general is very capable and a better candidate because it has not become political,” Keane said Monday.

Murthy, a Harvard and Yale-trained internist, was also criticized for campaigning for Obama in 2012 for a group called Doctors for America, and for his vocal support of the healthcare law, which he acknowledged “can be perceived as partisan.”

“I believe it is very important for the surgeon general to be able to bring people together of all political stripes around health,” he told senators at his conformation hearing.

One of the Democrats who voted against Murthy was Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBlankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Energy: Feds eye rolling back Alaska wildlife rule | Park service releases climate report | Paper mills blamed for water contamination | Blankenship plans third-party Senate run The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Frenzy over Kennedy retirement rumors | Trump challenges DOJ MORE (D-W.Va.), who has long been an ally of the NRA despite a public break last year during the fight over background check legislation.

Manchin said he was “wary” of Murthy’s “past comments and political involvement,” arguing it could render him ineffective in the job.

“It is essential that the surgeon general gains the public’s trust, so this position must be separated from the political arena. After meeting with Dr. Murthy, I don’t question his medical qualifications; I just question whether the public will believe that he can separate his political beliefs from his public health views,” Manchin said in a statement before the vote.

The other Democrats who voted against the nominee were Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyVoters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers MORE (Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers Senate confirms Haspel to head CIA MORE (N.D.).

The final plea for the surgeon general came from two Connecticut Democrats who have become the Senate’s best-known champions of gun control since the shooting in Newtown, Conn. two years ago.

“What Dr. Murthy said is gun violence is a problem that we should be working on,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator: I support 'real' Second Amendment, not 'imaginary' one Frustrated Trump wants action on border wall, immigration Michigan Dem: Detroit-style pizza 'sweeping the nation' MORE (D-Conn.) said during the final floor speech before the vote. “If we can’t even get to the point that we all agree on that general notion … maybe this is more hopeless than I thought.”

The push to confirm Murthy took on added urgency in the Senate this fall as the United States dealt with the Ebola crisis.

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThis week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump hits federally funded clinics with new abortion restrictions Dem lawmaker spars with own party over prison reform MORE (D-Ill.) said the threat from the virus alone was reason enough to confirm a surgeon general.

“At a time when we are facing the greatest public health crisis in recent memory, how in the world can we leave this post vacant?” Durbin said, citing Murthy's “extraordinary academic background.”

The surgeon general position has been vacant since July 2013, more than a year before the deadly virus first arrived in the U.S.

When the first domestic case of Ebola was diagnosed in Dallas in late September, conversations about the surgeon general were no longer “theoretical,” said one source who is familiar with discussions in the Senate.

“Once people started getting nervous about Ebola, there was something every concrete where they were looking for leadership,” the source said.

Before Ebola, gun control and ObamaCare dominated nearly all the conversations about Murthy, including at his confirmation hearing in February. 

Around that time, the NRA went on the attack against the nomination with appearances on Fox News shows and a blitz of social media skewering him for his “gun control agenda.”

After as many as 10 Democrats, mostly those facing reelection in conservative states, voiced opposition to Murthy, his nomination was pulled from the floor schedule.

This month, Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.) hit the gas in an effort to confirm Murthy before Senate Republicans take over the upper chamber in January.

While some senators feared the debate over the government spending bill would prevent a vote on Murthy, those worries vanished over weekend after Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Senate panel advances Trump's CIA nominee Doug Jones to oppose Haspel as CIA chief MORE (R-Utah) forced a weekend session on the "cromnibus" that gave Democrats the chance to consider dozens of Obama nominees.

Senate Republicans were firm in their opposition to Murthy, calling him unqualified to manage more than 6,000 commissioned public health officers, including the 75 members currently deployed to Liberia to help healthcare workers infected with Ebola.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA GOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration MORE (R-Tenn.), who serves as ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he is concerned Murthy will use the position to advance his ideology.

“The surgeon general is known as ‘the nation’s doctor,’ Alexander said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Murthy’s experience does not demonstrate the leadership and knowledge of public health that we expect from our surgeons general.”

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Watchdog to probe EPA email preservation Overnight Energy: EPA moves to roll back chemical plant safety rule | NASA chief says humans contribute to climate change | Pruitt gets outside lawyer MORE (R-Wyo.), who is a physician, said Murthy doesn’t have enough experience because he only completed his medical education in 2006. He called Obama’s nomination of Murthy “embarrassing.”

At 36, Murthy will be the youngest to hold the post and is more than a decade younger than his last five predecessors.

He will also take over the role of “America’s doctor” at a time when rates of obesity and heart disease have reached all-time highs — two health problems he has vowed to tackle.

The Senate also voted Monday to end debate on the nominations of Daniel Santos to be a member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and Frank Rose to be an assistant secretary of State. Their confirmation votes are expected Tuesday.

Ramsey Cox contributed.

Updated at 6:32 p.m.