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Senate approves surgeon general; Kirk lone Republican supporter

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday approved President Barack Obama’s nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy to serve as U.S. surgeon general, despite opposition from Republicans and some Democrats over his support for gun control.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk was the lone Republican supporter.

Murthy, 37, a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, won confirmation on a vote of 51-43. He’s a co-founder of Doctors for America, a group that has pushed for affordable health care and supports Obama’s health care law.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said most of Murthy’s career has been spent as an activist focused on gun control and other political issues, rather than on treating patients. “Americans don’t want a surgeon general who might use this position of trust to promote his own personal campaign against the Second Amendment of the Constitution,” Barrasso said.

Supporters said Murthy is well-qualified and noted his promise not to use the position as a bully pulpit for gun control.

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Murthy has been “pilloried and excoriated” by the National Rifle Association and its supporters for his backing of stricter gun laws, including an assault weapons ban, and past statements that gun violence is a public health issue.

Murthy has made clear he is not “aspiring to be the leading doctor in America to engage in a political debate, but rather to engage in public health debates about obesity and tobacco and things that make a dramatic difference to the lives of so many people who live in this country,” Durbin said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the NRA had “spun a specious smokescreen” to block Murthy “simply because he stated the obvious fact that gun violence is a public health issue.” The vote to confirm Murthy came two years after a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Murthy expressed support for gun control in a letter to Congress after the shooting, drawing opposition from the NRA and holding up his confirmation vote.

“America’s next surgeon general should not be a political operative whose professional inexperience has been a source of bipartisan concern,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

Murthy’s nomination was endorsed by more than 100 health organizations, including the American College of Physicians, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a staunch supporter of gun rights, did not mention guns in a statement opposing Murthy but said he does not believe it’s appropriate for America’s top doctor to participate in political activism.

While he does not question Murthy’s medical qualifications, Manchin said he wonders whether the public will believe that Murthy “can separate his political beliefs from his public health views.”

The vote to confirm Murthy came more than a year after Obama nominated him.

The surgeon general doesn’t set policy but is an advocate for the people’s health.

Before founding Doctors for America, Murthy created a nonprofit that focused on HIV/AIDS education in India and the U.S. And he co-founded a technology company, TrialNetworks, that helps drug developers collaborate on clinical trials.

At a Senate hearing in February, Murthy said he wouldn’t use the position to push gun control. He said his priorities include fighting obesity and helping communities promote healthier living.

The son of immigrants from India, Murthy told senators he was inspired to become a doctor while helping out on weekends at his father’s family medicine clinic in Miami.

Dr. David Satcher, a former surgeon general, said Murthy’s youth and technological and business expertise would serve him well.

“We need a surgeon general now who is quite visible when it comes to dealing directly with the American people about their role of improving their health and the health of their communities,” Satcher said.

Visibility is tough for surgeons general. The only one who became a household name was the bow-tied Dr. C. Everett Koop, who during the Reagan administration brought frank talk about AIDS to a reluctant nation and crusaded against smoking.