With delay of surgeon general, NRA flexes election-year clout in Senate

Confirmation of Obama nominee delayed over gun rights

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Pressure from the National Rifle Association is helping delay the nomination of President Obama’s nominee to be the U.S. surgeon general as the influence of the gun rights group adds another factor to what figures to be a difficult midterm election season for Democrats.

The Senate is weighing the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy, a Harvard- and Yale-educated doctor who is also the co-founder of Doctors for America, a project of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.


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But after the recent failure of Debo Adegbile, Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, the White House has backed off a push to confirm Dr. Murthy amid reports that the number of Democratic defections on the pick could hit double digits — more than enough to deny the confirmation and hand Mr. Obama a second high-profile defeat.

Dr. Murthy told senators at his confirmation hearing that he would avoid politics in the position if confirmed.

“I do not intend to use my office as surgeon general as a bully pulpit on gun control,” he said.

Sen. Thad Cochran has introduced legislation backed by the National Rifle Association that would clarify a federal ban on storing information acquired during gun purchase background checks. (Associated Press)

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Sen. Thad Cochran has introduced legislation backed by the National Rifle Association ... more >

But many Republican senators, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, have threatened to block the nomination over Dr. Murthy’s views on gun rights. If Republicans stand united in opposition, Democrats could afford only five defections from their 55-member caucus if Vice President Joseph R. Biden is called to break a tie.

But Senate Democrats also are facing an election map where gun rights issues are particularly sensitive.

The seven states where Republicans are likeliest to take Senate seats from Democrats were carried by Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” They include the gun-rights bastions Alaska, Arkansas and Montana.

In a letter last month to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox wrote that Dr. Murthy’s “calls for the federal government to use its involvement in health and medicine to further a gun control agenda” were “troublesome.”

The slow-walking on a nominee over gun issues stands in start contrast to the immediate aftermath of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

In early 2013, Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats made an ambitious push to ban military-style semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines and to require background checks for all gun purchases.

But after a failed vote to expand some checks in April, Mr. Reid has not brought up the measure again, nor is there any indication that the outcome would be different in the Senate or in the Republican-controlled House.

Some states, such as New York, Connecticut and Maryland, have imposed their own controls in the wake of the shooting spree, but about half the states have tried to loosen gun laws since December 2012.

More recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted unanimously to lift a federal ban on carrying guns on U.S. Post Office grounds.

In addition to its efforts on the Second Amendment, the NRA also has waded into a fight over the First and Fourth amendments in another issue that could play a factor in the fall elections.

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