UPDATE 1-White House says rethinking strategy for surgeon general nominee

Mon Mar 17, 2014 7:52pm EDT

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(Adds Senate Democratic aide, paragraphs 3-4)

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - The White House said on Monday it would shift its strategy for winning Senate confirmation of its choice to be the next U.S. surgeon general after President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats helped sink another of his nominees this month.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the administration expected Vivek Hallegere Murthy, the head of a doctors' group, to be confirmed eventually by the U.S. Senate and was not reconsidering withdrawing Murthy's nomination for the top health post.

But as of now, Murthy's nomination is significantly short of the Democratic votes needed for confirmation, a Senate Democratic aide said on Monday.

Unless that changes, the White House would have only three options: Delay a vote, put it to a vote that fails, or wait for the nominee to withdraw.

Earlier this month, seven Democrats broke ranks and joined Republicans to block the nomination of lawyer Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.

The administration's defeat came eight months before congressional elections and as some of Obama's Democrats in Congress did not want to be seen as soft on crime by supporting Adegbile amid objections from police groups.

Obama nominated Murthy in November to serve as the country's top public health advocate. Murthy's appointment passed a Senate panel with bipartisan support. But the full Senate must still vote to back him.

"After the confirmation vote of Debo Adegbile, we are recalibrating the strategy around Dr. Murthy's floor vote. We expect him to get confirmed ultimately and be one of the country's most powerful messengers on health and wellness," Carney told reporters in a briefing.

Carney did not offer any details about the new strategy but said that "recalibrate" did not mean choosing another nominee.

The administration's reassessment of Murthy also comes amid opposition from the National Rifle Association, the nation's leading gun advocacy group. The NRA, in a letter to Senate leaders last month, said it "strongly opposes" Murthy for supporting various proposals aimed at tightening gun regulations.

Asked about the effect of the NRA's opposition, Carney reiterated the administration's strategy shift and said it would decide "how and when to move forward."

The White House's pause signals potential trouble for Obama's latest nomination and points to fraying ties between the president and members of his own party in the Senate, many of whom are up for re-election in November and want to distance themselves from the administration.

Republicans are hoping to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November's voting.

Murthy is president of Doctors for America, a group of more than 16,000 physicians and medical students promoting Obama's signature healthcare law, also known as Obamacare. An internist by training, Murthy practices medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

If approved, he would replace Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak, who has been acting as the surgeon general since July and overseeing public health endeavors around the country. (Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Richard Cowan; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)

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