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Obama's Surgeon General Nominee Stuck In Limbo


And President Obama's choice for surgeon general is the latest presidential nominee to face a tough time with Senate confirmation. He's been tripped up by the politics of special interests, plus Democrats vulnerable in re-election campaigns. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith has more.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Dr. Vivek Murthy is an MD and an MBA. He practices and teaches at Brigham and Women's Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School. He cofounded a clinical trials company, an HIV education organization and Doctors for America, formerly known as Doctors for Obama. And he isn't even 40 yet.

DR. CHRISTOPHER LILLIS: Vivek may be young but he's a visionary leader. I've only met maybe a handful of people in my life as brilliant as he is.

KEITH: Dr. Christopher Lillis has worked with Murthy for the past six years as part of Doctors for America.

LILLIS: This is an individual who has the potential to transform, you know, public health.

KEITH: But, if Murthy's nomination came up for a vote right now, Senate sources say it would fail. The reason: the National Rifle Association. In a letter to senators urging them to vote against Murthy, the NRA pointed to his support for an assault weapons ban and a tweet from Murthy saying guns are a health care issue. The NRA told lawmakers a vote for Murthy would be scored against them. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander asked Murthy about his position on gun control at his Senate confirmation hearing.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: To what extent do you intend to use the surgeon general's office as a bully pulpit for gun control?

DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Thank you, Senator Alexander. So, to start, I do not intend to use the surgeon general's office as a bully pulpit for gun control. My priority and focus is going to be on obesity prevention.

KEITH: It seems the fact that question could even be asked, was enough to put Murthy's nomination on ice. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Late last year, Senate Democrats rewrote the filibuster rules, making it easier than ever for President Obama to get his nominees through a Senate controlled by his own party. But earlier this month, a handful of Senate Democrats joined Republicans in voting down the president's nominee to lead the civil rights division of the Justice Department. In Murthy's case, it's not even clear there will be a vote. Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked if the White House was abandoning Murthy.

JAY CARNEY: We are recalibrating our approach, but in answer to your question, no.

KEITH: Just what recalibrating means, and how long that might take is unclear. Doug Schoen a longtime democratic pollster and former advisor to President Bill Clinton describes the Obama administration's approach to nominations as...

DOUG SCHOEN: We won, the other side lost, and we're going to do what we want.

KEITH: But that, he says, doesn't work for Democrats facing tough races this fall.

SCHOEN: For Democrats whose base is much more moderate to conservative who are in swing states, many of which the president didn't win, it puts them in almost untenable positions.

KEITH: The New England Journal of Medicine is weighing in with a strongly worded editorial accusing the NRA of political and saying the idea that it could have veto power over the confirmation of the surgeon general is unacceptable. Lillis say Murthy is part of the medical mainstream.

LILLIS: The American College of Surgeons, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Medical Association - and you get my drift. I mean, all of American medicine has at one point has espoused the same views that Doctor Murthy has.

KEITH: But Doctor Murthy is the one stuck in limbo. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.