White House backing off surgeon general, for now

Democrats concerned about NRA opposition

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WASHINGTON -- The White House is backing off its push for quick confirmation of President Barack 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.

Harvard Medical School physician Vivek Hallegere Murthy, an Obama political organizer, is the latest nominee to be targeted for defeat by an outside group amidst the midterm election campaign. Dr. Murthy's support for 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 Mr. Obama, a week after the Senate blocked his nominee, Debo Adegbile, to be the Justice Department's chief civil rights attorney. The National Fraternal Order of Police mounted a campaign against Mr. 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 Mr. Adegbile.

A White House official said the president's staff is "recalibrating the strategy" around Dr. Murthy after what happened with Mr. Adegbile. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to discuss the personnel matter on the record, said the White House hopes that Dr. 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 presidential aides are consulting with individual senators and the Democratic leadership. Democratic officials said the Senate leadership was trying to figure out how to proceed with Dr. Murthy's nomination and assessing whether he would have enough votes for confirmation. He was approved by a committee vote last month with support from all Democrats and one Republican.

Dr. Murthy, 36, would be the first Indian-American surgeon general and is backed by a long list of medical groups. But the NRA said his support for gun control, including a letter he sent to Congress last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, raised questions about whether he is motivated by science or politics. Dr. Murthy sent the letter as president of Doctors for America, a group he co-founded that supported Mr. Obama's health care reform plans.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, up for re-election this year, 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," Mr. Begich said in the letter, according to his office. He said that besides concerns about Dr. Murthy's position on gun control, he also is concerned about his political advocacy and lack of experience as a practicing physician.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who practiced medicine for 25 years, has been pushing against Dr. 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," Mr. Barrasso said in a phone 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 Mr. Obama compared with 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," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "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."

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