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Senate Confirms Obama’s Surgeon General Pick Despite Gun Control Views

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s controversial choice for surgeon general Monday, a victory for the administration after GOP infighting gave Democrats the upper hand in the final stretch of the lame-duck Congress.

The 51-43 vote followed a drama-filled weekend session in which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) forced senators to cancel plans and file into work as he tried to use a government funding bill as leverage to stop the president’s immigration policy.

But the strategy backfired: Not only did Congress clear the $1.1 trillion spending bill without restrictions on immigration policy, but Democrats used the rare Saturday session to speed up the confirmation process for nearly two dozen nominations that would have otherwise languished.

Vivek Murthy, the Harvard- and Yale-educated internist who is Obama’s choice for surgeon general, faced stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association over his support for stricter gun control laws.

But his confirmation, coming almost two years to the day after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, allowed Democrats to wrap up their majority control of the Senate with a victory.

The Senate this week expects to clear more than 20 other nominees that had been bogged down in a political morass. The list includes some lifetime judicial appointments, bolstering Obama’s stamp on the courts.

The NRA on Monday reiterated its opposition to Murthy, whom it criticized for supporting a federal ban on sales of semiautomatic firearms.

“The NRA’s position hasn’t changed,” said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

Supporters have defended Murthy, saying that his views are not extreme and that most Americans support tougher gun control laws. They also argued that the nation needs a surgeon general at the forefront of the nation’s public health team, noting the recent Ebola crisis.

“We need a surgeon general right now,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a leading advocate of gun restrictions. “Let’s agree to agree that Dr. Murthy is right — that gun violence is a problem that this country should be addressing, no matter what your view on how we get there. That’s something we all should be able to unite around.”

The Senate on Monday also was set to advance Obama’s choice of Sarah Saldana to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over the objections of conservative Republicans protesting the president’s plan to defer deportations for up to 5 million immigrants here illegally.

Saldana and another nominee, Antony Blinken, tapped as deputy secretary of state, are expected to be confirmed Tuesday.

The current session of Congress has just days remaining; the House has already finished its work and left for the holidays.

Republicans are using procedural tools to slow down the confirmation process, forcing the Senate to stay at work.

As he opened the chamber Monday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) warned that he would keep senators in session “until we finish our work” — even if that means another Saturday in Washington.

“I know we all have things to do,” Reid said, noting that after he sold his longtime home in Searchlight, Nev., earlier this year, he hasn’t yet spent a night in the new house he bought near Las Vegas in May. “I want to go home.”

The Senate still hopes to give final passage later this week to a package of specialty tax breaks, including for the film industry, Puerto Rican rum producers and teachers who buy their own school supplies. The measure has already cleared the House.

Congress, however, remains divided over an extension of the terrorism risk insurance program, which will expire Dec. 31 if no agreement is reached.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

Obama Must Remember Sandy Hook

President Barack Obama has wisely chosen to ignore bipartisan bleating over the lawful use of his executive authority to address pressing issues long championed by the so-called professional left. He has instead decided to flex his muscle, at long last.

He struck a deal with China to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 percent over the coming years; pushed for regulating the internet as a public utility; raised the minimum wage of workers employed by companies with federal contracts; created gender equity rules for like employees; protected as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation; and his Environmental Protection Agency is set to enforce new ozone standards generally, as well as new carbon limits specifically, for some 600 coal-fired electricity plants.

To all that, I say hallelujah.

But I hope Obama, as he checks off items on his progressive to-do list, remembers the 20 children shot to pieces in Newtown, Connecticut, by a deranged young man wielding his dead mother’s semi-automatic rifle. In the wake of that national nightmare, the president vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another massacre of the kind visited upon Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. With 300 million firearms in circulation in the U.S. — most of which are handguns — odds are that another will happen. And soon.

Now that his party has lost control of the Senate, as well as numerous additional seats in the House of Representatives, Obama is free to act alone, and deliver on his promise. More generally, he has the chance to pick a fight with congressional Republicans that’s worth fighting, and he can do it without worrying about his own party getting in the way.

What can he do?

First, forget about the Congress. Come January 3, Republicans will be in charge. But even when they were in the minority, gun legislation usually failed. Consider that Senate Republicans defeated a ban on assault rifles just weeks after Sandy Hook with the help of 15 spineless Democrats. Even if that law had miraculously gotten through the Republican-controlled House, it would have faced certain doom, as the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court believes guns are a God-given right immune to government restriction. And even if the high court had somehow upheld the assault-rifle ban, it wouldn’t have done much good in practice. It might have mitigated the most devastating of mass shootings, but it wouldn’t have stopped the retail death-and-destruction of handguns.

Second, stop talking about guns. Ours is a gun culture animated by rugged individualism, dramatized by Hollywood and policed by the National Rifle Association. Days after Sandy Hook, an NRA spokesman said: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Afterward, state legislatures, most in the south and west, passed laws permitting guns in churches, businesses and schools. Take a moment to ponder that. More guns was the response to 20 murdered six-year-old schoolchildren. That tells you something. It tells you that gun-control arguments in a gun context lose before they begin.

Obama needs to change the context. He can do that by appointing a surgeon general.

Vivek Murthy is a doctor at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital with degrees from Harvard and Yale. He founded Doctors for America, researched AIDS in Africa and hoped, as Obama’s pick for surgeon general, to focus on obesity. Senate Republicans filibustered him last spring, with assistance from five southern and western Democrats, because Murthy threatens the NRA’s control of the gun debate. And he threatens the NRA’s control of the gun debate because he believes guns are not an issue of constitutional liberty or natural law, but an issue of public health and safety. He is right. Eighty people die every day in gun-related deaths, according to one study. The annual total of deaths will surpass vehicular deaths sometime next year.

Remember, the NRA believes the Second Amendment is inviolate, and the Supreme Court has agreed. The debate is over for now — it was indeed over long before the Sandy Hook massacre — and no more room exists even for a mild piece of legislation, like an assault-weapons ban, that might have done a little good but that mostly makes gun-control liberals feel better about themselves. Yet if we remove the debate from a gun context, if we approach our epidemic of gun violence from the point of view of a doctor serving the health and welfare of all Americans — well, that changes things. Or could, if Murthy is given a chance.

By the way, those Democrats who helped block Murthy’s nomination? All but one is gone. They have retired or been defeated by Republican challengers. So, very little prevents Obama from putting Murthy to work with a recess appointment before the new Congress convenes in January. He can do it alone, and he won’t have to worry about spineless Democrats getting in his way.

John Stoehr is managing editor of The Washington Spectator. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks about the economy as Vice President Joe Biden looks on, before he nominates former senior Pentagon official Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

 

We Need To Talk About Guns, Whether The NRA Likes It Or Not

The medical community has been no match for the National Rifle Association for decades. By the time Congress leaves town for the holidays, we’ll know if senators have shown an ounce of courage or if the NRA has bagged one more trophy. Either way, we won’t get the high-stakes discussion we need about guns.

At issue is the fate of Dr. Vivek Murthy, nominated over a year ago to be surgeon general but consigned to limbo due to his completely unremarkable view that gun violence is a public health problem. Murthy’s pre-nomination Twitter feed attests to his passion for the tighter gun laws that he, like most doctors, believes would cut down on deaths and injuries. But if Murthy lands the job, don’t expect him to talk about any of that. He told a Senate committee in February that he wouldn’t use the post as a bully pulpit for new gun laws.

So much for the surgeon general’s role as “the nation’s leading spokesman on matters of public health.” And so much for standing up to the NRA.

The group blasted out of the box charging that Murthy supported “radical gun control measures” and would use the office of surgeon general to advance “his pre-existing campaign against gun ownership.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist and 2016 presidential prospect, said Murthy would attack the constitutional right to own firearms “under the guise of a public health and safety campaign” and said he would try to block his confirmation.

The 2014 campaign, with its band of skittish red-state Senate Democrats vulnerable to NRA attacks, put Murthy’s future on hold. His pivotal moment — vote? no vote? failed vote? — has finally arrived, and it happens to coincide with the Dec. 14 anniversary of the murder of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The juxtaposition is illuminating.

One rap against Murthy is that, in Paul’s words, he would encourage doctors to “use their position of trust to ask patients, including minors, details about gun ownership in the home.” To which I say, if only. If only the health professionals who examined and treated Adam Lanza had asked him and his mother those questions and managed to get that home arsenal out of reach before he went on his Sandy Hook rampage two years ago.

Paul also said he was concerned that Murthy considers guns “a public health issue on par with heart disease and has diminished the role of mental health in gun violence.” But in a lengthy study of Adam Lanza’s “psychological deterioration” released last month, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate said repeatedly that guns are the critical factor in mass shootings.

“The conclusion that access to guns drives shooting episodes far more than the presence of mental illness is inescapable. Those countries that have tight gun controls in general experience less overall gun violence and have fewer episodes per capita of mass shootings,” the authors wrote. They said mental illness “plays only a small role” in mass murder while guns, “especially assault weapons with high-capacity magazines,” play a “ubiquitous role.” Widespread access to such weapons and ammunition “is an urgent public health concern,” they wrote.

Medical professionals agree. The American Academy of Pediatrics website lists eight priorities in its federal advocacy section, and No. 1 is “Keeping children safe: Gun violence prevention.” Banning assault weapons is the top item on its state advocacy page. The American Medical Association favors an assault weapons ban and closing loopholes that allow gun buyers to avoid background checks.

Gun safety activists marked the second anniversary of Sandy Hook by releasing a study that found at least 95 school shootings in 33 states have occurred since that tragedy. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) called Congress “complicit in these murders if we continue to sit back and do nothing to reverse this trend.”

There was never a more complicit moment than in April 2013, four months after Sandy Hook, when the Senate tried to pass a bipartisan bill to require background checks online and at gun shows. Supporters needed 60 votes to break a filibuster, and only mustered 54.

Under Senate rules for nominations, Murthy needs only 51 votes. If he prevails, he told senators he’ll focus primarily on obesity, “the defining challenge of our time.” In other words, he’d be another Michelle Obama, who chose obesity as a worthy but relatively non-controversial First Lady cause. He wouldn’t be another C. Everett Koop, the Reagan-era surgeon general who crusaded against tobacco and mailed sexually explicit AIDS information to every household in America.

Restraint could get Murthy confirmed. To make real progress against gun violence, he’d need to channel Koop.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: brian.ch via Flickr

U.S. Doctors Decry ‘Political Blackmail’ By Gun Lobby

Washington (AFP) – A leading US medical journal hit out at the powerful American gun lobby for opposing the nomination for the post of top doctor, calling it a new form of “political blackmail.”

At issue is the nomination to the post of surgeon general of a Harvard medical school physician named Vivek Murthy, whose parents were born in India.

Murthy “has lived the American dream,” said the editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, noting his role in expanding HIV education, broadening access to healthcare and fighting childhood obesity.

His nomination awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate, but that vote may be postponed or his candidacy withdrawn, amid reports that as many as 10 senate Democrats would vote against him, enough to keep him out of the post.

The National Rifle Association has sent letters to lawmakers and to members over the past two months, urging them to oppose Murthy based on his views on guns.

“Dr. Murthy’s record of political activism in support of radical gun control measures raises significant concerns about his ability to objectively examine issues pertinent to America’s 100 million firearm owners,” said one NRA letter to lawmakers, sent to AFP by the NRA press office.

A separate email alert to NRA members described Murthy as someone who agrees with President Barack Obama’s “radical anti-gun agenda” and who has “advocated on many occasions for the banning of lawfully owned firearms.”

“It’s clear that Dr. Murthy would be a prescription for disaster for America’s law-abiding gun owners,” the email said, urging NRA members to contact their senators to express their opposition.

The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine said Murthy has stood for “reasonable and mainstream forms of gun regulation, including an assault weapons ban, a limit on ammunition sales, and required safety training.”

These views are “unsurprising” given the more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the United States each year, the editorial said.

It also pointed out that Murthy has said that if confirmed, his principal focus would be on preventing obesity in America.

“This is the first time that the NRA has flexed its political muscle over the appointment of a surgeon general,” the editors wrote.

“By obstructing the president’s nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, the NRA is taking its single-issue political blackmail to a new level.”

The authors concluded by calling on U.S. senators to confront the NRA and vote according to their conscience.

“Dr. Murthy is an accomplished physician, policymaker, leader and entrepreneur. He deserves the president’s continued backing and should be confirmed.”

Photo via Flickr