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Senate Set To Vote On Surgeon General Nominee

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This evening, the long-stalled nomination of Pres. Obama's choice to be the next surgeon general is finally getting a vote. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more on nominee Vivek Murthy and the controversy that delayed his nomination for more than a year.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Vivek Murthy is a young Harvard- and Yale-educated Indian-American physician. He's been a leader in AIDS prevention, and he cofounded a group called Doctors for America, which was previously Doctors for Obama. The group advocated for the president's health care law, but that's not what got Murthy hung up in the Senate. Doctors for America also supports stricter gun control laws, including background checks, mandatory safety training and banning certain semiautomatic weapons. That's what's at the heart of the controversy that has held up Murthy's confirmation. Doctors for America has been dubbed Docs Versus Glocks, but Dr. Chris Lillis, the Virginia state director for the group, says its views on guns are right in sync with the medical community in general.

DR. CHRIS LILLIS: Dr. Murthy's views that he expressed many years ago is in complete congruence with the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics. He said nothing different than what the rest of the public health establishment has said.

LIASSON: And those positions aren't much different from what the Obama administration wants on gun laws.

LILLIS: The public health establishment has advocated for universal background checks. The public health establishment has discussed the importance of being able to discuss owning a firearm with our patients, so that we can be sure that we're protecting their health and safety. None of the public health establishment has called for a repeal of the Second Amendment.

LIASSON: Dr. Murthy did send out one particular tweet that said, quote, "tired of politicians playing politics with guns, putting lives at risk because they're scared of the NRA" - that would be the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights lobby. The NRA made it a priority to block Murthy's confirmation, and until today, it's been successful. Here's NRA's top political strategist Chris Cox on "Fox News."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS")

CHRIS COX: Mr. Murthy's not just a gun-control supporter. He's a gun-control activist, and it's clear that his agenda is to treat a constitutional freedom like a disease.

LIASSON: During Murthy's confirmation hearings, Rep. Lamar Alexander read Murthy his tweet and asked him about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

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, Sen. Alexander. 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.

LIASSON: Fighting fat sounds pretty innocuous, but Murthy's nomination remained controversial - so controversial that the White House couldn't round up the votes for Murthy, even though Democrats had changed the Senate rules so he only needed 51 votes instead of 60. Too many Democrats up for re-election from red states where the NRA is a powerful political force said they would join Republicans and vote no. So the White House reconsidered its strategy and decided to try again after the election, thinking it might be easier to get Murthy through in the lame-duck session. Now, with most of the red state Democrats having lost their races, several Democratic no votes switching to yes, and Murthy's path looks smoother.

Murthy also got an unexpected assist from conservative Rep. Ted Cruz, whose last-minute, unsuccessful gambit to stop Pres. Obama's executive actions on immigration gave outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a parliamentary opening to push through a bunch of stalled nominations, including Murthy's. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.