The National Rifle Association has targeted President Barack Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, and Democrats are in retreat.
Vivek Hallegere Murthy was tapped for the coveted role to serve as the federal government’s top spokesman on public health. He’s a uniquely accomplished physician — a physician-instructor at Harvard Medical School since 2006 and a co-founder of VISIONS Worldwide in 1995, a nonprofit group working to fight HIV/AIDS. He received a B.A. from Harvard, an M.B.A. from Yale School of Management and an M.D. from Yale School of Medicine.
But Murthy’s nomination is in jeopardy because he has offended the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists by supporting gun safety laws such as a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, limits on ammunition purchases and mandatory safety training for gun owners. A recent open letter to Senate leaders from NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, lambasts Murthy for backing “radical gun control measures” and waging a “campaign against gun ownership.” Cox concludes that the NRA “must oppose” Murthy’s confirmation. The more fervent Gun Owners of America, which has tended to push the NRA to the right, has dubbed him an “anti-gun fanatic.”
As a result, he lacks the votes to be confirmed in Senate even though Democrats have a 55-45 majority, a sign that vulnerable members in red states are worried about the mid-term elections.
“The NRA is opposed and that has put some moderate Democrats in a tough spot,” said a top Senate Democratic aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “We’re probably short 8-10 votes and the White House needs to decide whether to push for a vote, try to get the Democrats back or withdraw the nomination. No vote scheduled at this point.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) has publicly raised concerns about Murthy. His office told TPM he’s a “likely no” on the nomination.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that “we are recalibrating the strategy around Dr. Murthy’s floor vote.” He noted that Murthy cleared the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support and signaled it wouldn’t withdraw the nomination. “We expect him to get confirmed ultimately and be one of the country’s most powerful messengers on health and wellness,” Carney said.
According to new rules established by Democrats in November, non-Supreme Court nominees need 51 votes — not 60 — to ensure confirmation. The Murthy setback comes one week after a group of Senate Democrats scuttled Obama’s top civil rights nominee for the Justice Department, Debo Adegbile, invoking his past legal advocacy at the NAACP on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1981.
Murthy, who would be the first Indian-American surgeon general, supported Obama’s campaign in 2008. He has the support of a large swath of respected medical and wellness groups, including the American Cancer Society, American Hospital Association and American Public Health Association. His advocacy for gun control laws has been the only thorn in his side even though it’s an area where he would have limited influence as surgeon general.
The episode serves a reminder that the NRA retains enormous clout to intimidate and influence national lawmakers, even though some argued that the lobbying group’s influence was waning after its arguably tone-deaf response to the horrific shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., that left 20 children and six teachers dead in December 2012.