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 KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls 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.”


“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 ManchinDemocrats hit crucial stretch as filibuster fight looms Biden's elitist work-family policy won't work for most families The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture 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 DonnellyRepublicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives MORE (Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Bill Maher blasts removal of journalist at Teen Vogue Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives 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 MurphyUS, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks Democrats face big headaches on Biden's T spending plan Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap 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 DurbinDOJ faces big decision on home confinement America's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel 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 ReidBiden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring 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 CruzCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP governor says Republican Party has to allow for differences Republicans urge probe into Amazon government cloud-computing bid: report Allowing a racist slur against Tim Scott to trend confirms social media's activist bias 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 AlexanderThe Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality 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 BarrassoBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Republican seeks to use Obama energy policies to criticize Biden  EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases 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.