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 KirkBiden's relationship with 'Joe-Joe' Manchin hits the rocks Let's fix America's accounting problem — starting with Build Back Better Duckworth announces reelection bid 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 ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet with CEOs to discuss Build Back Better agenda Hoyer says 'significant' version of Build Back Better will pass this year Gallego went to New York to meet Sinema donors amid talk of primary challenge: report 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 DonnellyFormer Sen. Donnelly confirmed as Vatican ambassador Biden to have audience with pope, attend G20 summit Biden taps former Indiana Sen. Donnelly as ambassador to Vatican MORE (Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters 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 MurphySenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks 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 DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks 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 ReidDemocrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 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 CruzHow Cruz Supreme Court case could lead to unlimited anonymous election spending Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeePut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate 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 BarrassoWatch: GOP leaders discuss Biden's first year in office McConnell will run for another term as leader despite Trump's attacks Senate Minority Whip Thune, close McConnell ally, to run for reelection 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.