WASHINGTON — Intense opposition from the National Rifle Assn. has all but doomed prospects for President Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, officials said Saturday as pro-gun Senate Democrats peeled away from the White House on a volatile issue in an election year.
Facing a potential high-profile setback for the president, the White House is not pushing for a vote to confirm Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, a Harvard- and Yale-educated internist and former emergency room doctor who has advocated for stricter gun control laws, the officials said.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have begun surveying senators to determine whether there is enough support to save the troubled nomination. Few Republicans are expected to back Murthy, and as many as eight Democrats also could be opposed.
“We don’t expect a vote to happen,” a Senate aide said.
The divide between the White House and the president’s party has widened in recent weeks as Obama’s low poll numbers leave Democrats increasingly concerned about their chances in the November midterm election and whether they could lose their majority in the Senate.
Earlier this month, Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Debo Adegbile, was rejected by the full Senate after several Democrats joined Republicans in opposing him.
Law enforcement groups had criticized Adegbile’s past involvement in the legal appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing a Philadelphia police officer.
Gun rights issues are particularly powerful in an election year, and the entrance of the NRA into the surgeon general confirmation opens a new front in the gun lobby’s efforts to halt any attempts at federal firearms restrictions.
In a letter to Senate leadership in February, the NRA warned against the confirmation, saying, “Dr. Murthy’s record of political activism in support of radical gun control measures raises significant concerns.”
In the past, the NRA didn’t venture into nomination battles beyond those directly related to 2nd Amendment issues, but the gun lobby’s letter suggested “the likelihood he would use the office of surgeon general to further his preexisting campaign against gun ownership.”
A spokesman for the NRA said Saturday that the organization was simply responding to the White House decision to nominate a gun control advocate.
“We’re forced to get involved and voice our opposition,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
Murthy testified last month at his confirmation hearing that he did not intend to use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control. At the time, he was criticized primarily by Republican senators for having co-founded a doctors organization that backed Obama.
Murthy has expressed a desire to tighten restrictions on who can buy guns and how they can be purchased. Supporters say that most Americans support those views and that they are mainstream, not radical.
Heading into the November election, lawmakers are careful not to antagonize the NRA because gun rights issues particularly appeal to the white and conservative voters who typically drive turnout in midterm elections. Several Democratic senators face tough reelection battles in states that Obama lost in 2012, including Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Despite emotional appeals from families of shooting victims, the Senate last year rejected White House efforts to tighten gun laws after a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.