The White House is backing off its push for quick confirmation of President Obama's pick to be surgeon general in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association and concerns among Democrats up for re-election who don't want to take another tough vote on a controversial nominee.
Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, a Harvard Medical School physician and Obama political organizer, is the latest nominee to be targeted for defeat by an outside group in the midst of the midterm election campaign. Murthy's support of gun control drew the ire of the NRA, which was a driving force 11 months ago in the defeat of Obama-endorsed stronger background checks for firearms purchases.
The White House has decided that, at least for now, it won't put its vulnerable incumbents in the position of taking a vote that could hurt them in the November elections. It's an embarrassing setback for Obama, a week after the Senate blocked his pick of Debo Adegbile as the government's chief civil rights attorney.
The National Fraternal Order of Police mounted a campaign against Adegbile for his advocacy on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. The White House pressed ahead for a vote but was angered that seven Democrats joined all 44 Republicans in blocking Adegbile.
A White House official said the president's staff is "recalibrating the strategy" around Murthy after what happened with Adegbile. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to discuss the personnel matter on the record, said the White House hopes Murthy ultimately will be confirmed. That leaves open the possibility that the White House could ask for a vote after the election, although the official would not comment on what the new strategy might be other than to say that presidential aides are consulting with individual senators and Democratic leadership.
Democratic officials said the Senate leadership was trying to figure out how to proceed with Murthy's nomination and assessing whether he would have enough votes for confirmation. He was approved by committee vote last month with the support of all Democrats and one Republican.
Murthy, 36, would be the first Indian-American surgeon general and is backed by a long list of medical groups. But the NRA said that Murthy's support of gun control, including a letter he sent to Congress last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, raised questions about whether he is motivated by science or politics. Murthy sent the letter as president of Doctors for America, a group he co-founded that supported Obama's plans for health care reform.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, up for re-election this year in Alaska, cited his lifetime NRA membership in a letter to constituents who have contacted him on the Murthy nomination.
"While the Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on Dr. Murthy, I have already told the White House I will very likely vote no on his nomination if it comes to the floor," Begich said in the letter, according to his office. He said that besides concerns about Murthy's position on gun control, he also is concerned about Murthy's political advocacy and lack of experience as a practicing physician.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who practiced medicine for 25 years, has been pushing against Murthy on the same grounds and said the White House isn't doing a very good job of preventing confirmation battles.
"The White House was terribly embarrassed that their nominee for the Justice Department failed," Barrasso said in a telephone interview Friday from Ukraine, where he was with several lawmakers amid turmoil in the country. "I don't think they saw it coming. They had [Vice President] Joe Biden in the chair to break a tie and it wasn't even close."
The White House argues that its nominees have been approved at the same rate as his predecessors — 76.6 percent for Obama compared to 77.9 percent for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
"This administration has adopted the highest ethical standards in history, and the caliber of our nominees and their preparedness to serve reflect that high bar," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. "Similar to previous administrations, all appointments are thoroughly vetted. But current congressional Republicans have made no secret of the extraordinary lengths they will go to obstruct the confirmation process."