Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., defied the National Rifle Association to confirm Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.
The Murthy confirmation was delayed for months due to opposition by the NRA and most Republicans, primarily over his support for gun control measures. But Kirk's vote helped put him over the top with a 51 to 43 vote Monday.
Kirk's move comes as he seeks to moderate his voting record in the run-up to 2016 given that he will be a top target for Democrats in a blue state.
His office didn’t immediately respond to questions about Kirk's vote.
He dispelled any notion he would retire in an interview with CQ Roll Call last month, despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2012.
Kirk has voted with Democrats on gun-related issues in the past. In April 2013 he voted to advance bipartisan proposals that would have expanded background checks for gun purchasers. But the proposal died after it failed to win the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Kirk also subsequently voted against an amendment that would have expanded legal access to guns at federally controlled water project sites.
Republicans argued he was nominated as an act of political patronage because in 2008 he was co-founder of a group called Doctors for Obama, which later changed its name to Doctors for America and advocates for increased access to affordable health care.
Along with opposition to his political work and his anti-gun stances, the GOP argued that Murthy, 39, was too inexperienced and did not have the right background for the job.
“Unfortunately, Dr. Murthy’s nomination had more to do with politics,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will be majority leader in the next Congress, said in a release.
Most Democrats lauded the Senate vote.
Long-time gun control advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., applauded the Senate and said it “put public health over special interests.”
The NRA cited tweets from Murthy’s personal Twitter account that promoted his gun control beliefs, including one on Oct. 16, 2012, that said, "Guns are a health care issue."
Feinstein said Murthy's positions “rightly acknowledged the effects of gun violence on public health, which are seen daily by the thousands of health care professionals who treat victims of gun violence in emergency rooms across the country.”
Three Democrats voted against Murthy: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
“I’m opposing Dr. Murthy’s nomination because there are severe gaps in his basic qualifications that we as a country expect from our doctor of the nation – including experience in public health education training and management,” Heitkamp said in an email sent by an aide. “Dr. Murthy is a talented individual who I have no doubt has a promising career ahead of him.”
Donnelly echoed Heitkamp's concerns.
"After speaking with Dr. Murthy, there is no question he is a talented physician and a passionate public health advocate," Donnelly said in a statement. "However, after reviewing his qualifications, experience, and past positions — as well as the input from Hoosiers — I had concerns about his ability to serve as our nation’s leading medical voice on critical public health issues.”
Manchin announced before the vote that he would oppose Murthy because he was concerned that the positions he took would make it harder to win the trust of the American people.
“Our Surgeon General serves as America’s leader on public health services and chooses what health policies we should prioritize,” Manchin said in a release. “For that reason, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for America’s number one doctor to participate in political activism.”
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