The nominee, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, an internist and political ally of the president's, has come under criticism from the National Rifle Association, and opposition from the gun-rights group has grown so intense that it has placed Democrats from conservative states, several of whom are up for re-election this year, in a difficult spot. Senate aides said Friday that as many as 10 Democrats are believed to be considering a vote against Dr. Murthy, who has voiced support for various gun control measures like an assault weapons ban, mandatory safety training and ammunition sales limits.
Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination to serve as the nation's Surgeon General was, by all appearances, entirely uninteresting up until very recently. His confirmation hearings were so quiet that the most interesting thing about them was Sen. Pat Roberts' (R) tone-deaf comments about Indian-American doctors he knows in Kansas.
When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced an effort to block Murthy, much of the political world just rolled its eyes. His confirmation appeared so likely, the fight was over before it started.
Or so we thought. The New York Times reported over the weekend that the White House is no longer sure Murthy can get a Senate majority, and as such, the West Wing is eyeing an indefinite delay for the nominee.
When Senate Democrats executed the so-called "nuclear option" last fall, it seemed the White House no longer had much to worry about on this front. The Senate Democratic caucus has 55 members, and so long as President Obama sent qualified nominees for administrative posts, there wasn't much the Senate Republican minority could do to stop them.
The flaw in this assumption, we're now realizing, is the importance of Senate Dems' intestinal fortitude -- or in this case, the lack thereof.
Murthy is an impressive medical professional with sterling credentials. He's an attending physician, an instructor, and a public-health advocate. When Obama nominated him for the post, no one questioned his qualifications.
But Murthy, like so many in his field, also sees a connection between gun violence and public health -- just as Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, believed.
And for the NRA, that means Murthy must be rejected. Because there are so many Democrats worried about the 2014 midterms and the perceived political might of the NRA, it means a qualified surgeon general nominee went from a "sure thing" to "in doubt" over the course of just a few weeks.
It's worth noting that it'd be a mistake to characterize Murthy's nomination as dead. It's not. The White House is reportedly "recalibrating" its strategy on the nomination and I talked to a Senate source that said everyone involved wants to put some distance between Murthy's confirmation vote and the recent fiasco surrounding Debo Adegbile's nomination to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division.
But while we wait to see the process play out, the fact that Murthy is being delayed at all is a reminder that nervous Dems are easily rattled and still terrified of the NRA -- as if there's a sizable number of voters out there who might say, "Well, I was going to vote for the senator, but after the confirmation vote on a surgeon general nominee I've never heard of, I've changed my mind."