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Indian American surgeon general nominee counters GOP critics

February 05, 2014 14:42 IST

In a stellar performance, Indian American US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy took on one critic after another at the Senate confirmation hearing. Aziz Haniffa reports.

The Republican attacks against US surgeon general nominee Dr Vivek Murthy at his Senate confirmation hearing, came fast and furious with the ranking GOP member on the Senate Health Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander, hurling the first salvo.

Alexander said that he was concerned over Murthy’s apparent ideological support for Obamacare and gun control.

“There is no doubt you are a highly intelligent, highly motivated person. And my first concern is much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential,” he said, even as he praised Murthy’s stated intention of making childhood obesity his priority as surgeon general.

“Much of your work has been devoted to electing the current president and advocating the new health care law, all of which is your perfect right to do as an American citizen. But as a public official, if that becomes your principal purpose of the bully pulpit, that gets to be a problem”.

Alexander said, “I’d be reluctant to put into the surgeon general’s office someone who would use that as a bully pulpit to promote a law I think is a historic mistake”.

He also took on Murthy for having once said on the social media website Twitter that he was ‘tired of politicians…(who are) scared of the NRA.’

Alexander told Murthy, “I would hope you know that Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate the Second Amendment or any other amendment, and the Second Amendment is not a special interest group -- it’s part of our Constitution.’

“And again, if your goal is to make guns the bully pulpit of your advocacy in the surgeon general’s office, that would concern me”.

Alexander wasn’t done, adding, “The second major area of concern that I’ll look forward to learning more about has to do with experience”, and he introduced into the record a letter from the 17th surgeon general of the United States, Richard Carmona, who had written the president about Murthy’s pending appointment.

In his missive, Carmona says, “I don’t know the potential nominee that the press has reported on. However, it appears he is a smart motivated physician, very early in his career with great potential but no significant related leadership experience and no formal public health training or experience,” and goes to note that the general tradition of surgeon generals has been to select someone who has the credentials and that Murthy does not have that caliber of gravitas.

But in a stellar performance, where he was not only articulate, but comprehensive and detailed in his answers, Murthy told Alexander, “To start, I do not intend to use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control. That is not going to be my priority”.

“My priorities and main focus is going to be on obesity, prevention. There are a number of public health challenges that are facing our nation,” he said.

But he rubbed it in about gun violence, saying, “My concerns with regard to issues like gun violence have to do with my experience as a physician -- seeing patients in emergency rooms who have come in with acute injuries”.

Murthy said, “I’ve also seen many patients over the years who are dealing with spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic complications from gun violence”.

But he assured Alexander that ‘given the opportunity to serve as surgeon general,’ his role would ‘not to be a legislator or a judge. The role is to be a public health educator on our most pressing challenges.’

Murthy reiterated, “Obesity is the defining public health challenge of our time and that’s where I intend to put my primary focus”.

When Senator Mike Enzi, Wyoming Republican, called him up on another tweet of his that asserted ‘Obamacare gives women choice and access to contraception -- what’s wrong with choice?’ Murthy said, “My approach to the issue of contraception really is informed by science”.

He argued that ‘when women have access to contraception, it results in better outcomes for mothers.’

He argued that ‘when women have access to contraception, it results in better outcomes for mothers.’

When Enzi asked him what was wrong with employers whose relgious beliefs found it morally objectionable to provide contraceptives and if he believed contraception coverage shgould be mandatory, Murthy acknowledged that ‘when translating science into policies, the policymakers have a challenging job’ to balancing other consideration, ‘including individual liberties, religious liberties and other concerns.’

Murthy said, ‘I understand it’s a very difficult balance to strike,’ and declared, ‘I respect people’s individual beliefs and religious beliefs. I never want to see anyone’s beliefs trampled on anymore than I want to see my beliefs trampled on.’

Thus, he said, “If I had the opportunity to serve as Surgeon General, what I would seek to do is to make sure I did everything to make sure that I brought the science, not just to the public but to the legislators as well so that they can make the best decision in terms of policy of balancing science with other considerations when making policy”.

Under the recent change in Senate rules pushed by Democratic Senate Leader Senator Harry Reid, a simply majority of senators could override filibusters on presidential nominations with the exception of picks for the Supreme Court.

Republicans had used filibusters earlier to block several of President Obama’s nominations, and Reid frustrated by this strategy by the GOP had instituted the so-called ‘nuclear option.’

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, the committee chair who had earlier welcomed Murthy with a rousing introduction, immediately he gaveled the end of the hearing, came down from the dais to congratulate Murthy on his performance and assured him that he foresaw no problem with his confirmation.

He told Murthy that he was ‘in good shape,’ and although Senate rules required him to keep the record open for 10 days to entertain any other questions members of the committee would have, once this interval passed, he would call for a vote on the nomination, and once approved, send it over to the full Senate for a vote.

Harkin also spent a few minutes meeting with and chatting with Murthy’s parents and sister and also his family and friends who had packed the hearing room, and in what is quite a rare occurrence at Congressional hearings, accorded Murthy with a standing ovation at the end of his interaction with the lawmakers.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC