WASHINGTON -- Prospects that the Senate will confirm Vivek Murthy as surgeon general have remained bleak throughout the year, largely due to the physician's support for stricter gun laws. But a last-ditch campaign by health care activists has provided a glimmer of hope for Murthy, with a number of key Democrats coming out in support of his nomination in recent days.
Earlier this year, as many as 10 Democrats were reportedly prepared to vote against President Barack Obama's pick for the nation's top public health position, forcing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to table a vote on the nomination. But with the clock ticking down to the end of Democratic control over the upper chamber, health care activists are ramping up pressure on Democrats to confirm Murthy before Republicans take control of the Senate -- and their efforts appear to be paying dividends.
Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that they would be willing to vote in Murthy's favor if Reid brings the nomination to the floor. Pryor, who lost his seat last month to GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, was thought to be one of several Democratic holdouts on Murthy's nomination.
Tester's support is also key, given his influence among red state Democrats who are more likely to remain on the fence about Murthy. The Montana Democrat, who was recently chosen to run his party's campaign arm in the 2016 election cycle, said he was impressed after meeting with Murthy in his Capitol Hill office.
"I had a nice visit with him about a number of issues, including guns, and I think he'd do a fine job," Tester said.
It's been over a year since Obama nominated Murthy, a practicing physician and graduate of Harvard and Yale. Although Murthy cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in February, controversy erupted in March when Republicans seized on a tweet he posted criticizing the National Rifle Association. Gun rights activists quickly banded together in opposition to Murthy's nomination, pointing out that the surgeon general nominee co-founded a group called Doctors for America that has also advocated for gun control.
The pressure was enough to intimidate vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in 2014. But over the summer, the Ebola crisis placed a renewed spotlight on the surgeon general post -- and the fact that the Senate had yet to confirm Murthy. Speaking at an event on Tuesday with a host of medical groups including the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) cited the hysteria in the United States over Ebola as a prime example of where the guidance of a surgeon general would have been useful.
"It doesn’t get much more important these days than making sure that America has a doctor on call to be able to lead this nation’s public health conversation," Murphy said. "You just have to look at the chaos across the country that was wrought by the Ebola threat, that did not match -- in reality -- what it was portrayed to be on television to understand why we need a surgeon general."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also spoke at the event, where he touted Murthy's credentials and called on the Senate to confirm him during the lame-duck session. Speaking to HuffPost on Tuesday evening, Blumenthal said he was hopeful that politics would no longer stand in the way.
"I think there is growing momentum that we need a surgeon general and he is extraordinarily qualified," Blumenthal said. "He epitomizes the professional excellence that a surgeon general should have in this job, and I think that the United States Senate ought to put aside the politics of unrelated issues, like guns, and vote to confirm him."
Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, have also been publicly supportive of Murthy and are regarded as influential among party moderates.
"Dr. Murthy brings an entrepreneurial focus, and he is committed to using technology to expand our outreach on health and wellness in innovative ways," Warner said in a statement Monday. "I believe he will make an excellent Surgeon General."
Kaine recently issued a statement after meeting with Murthy, in which he urged his colleagues to "swiftly confirm his nomination."
"Now more than ever, Americans need a Surgeon General with the right combination of experience to address the modern day public health threats we face," Kaine wrote on his Facebook page. "Dr. Vivek Murthy, President Obama's nominee for Surgeon General, is a well-qualified physician and public health leader who has what it takes to be the nation's top doctor."
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who was on the record leaning against Murthy's confirmation earlier this year, told HuffPost last month that he found Murthy "informative" during a meeting on Capitol Hill but remained undecided on whether he would support the surgeon general nominee.
"My concern wasn't on guns," Begich said. "My concern was his experience and knowledge and the work that he would be required to do."
Based on the rules change enacted last year, Reid needs a simple majority to confirm Murthy. The lame-duck session is thus seen by health care advocates as Murthy's last chance, given he enjoys little to no support among Republicans.
Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) was the lone Republican to vote for Murthy in the HELP Committee in February, although his office did not respond to a request for comment when asked if he continued to support the nomination. In addition to Murthy's comments on guns, Republicans have taken issue with the fact that his group Doctors for America was originally called Doctors for Obama and helped campaign for Obama as well as advocate for the Affordable Care Act.
Murthy is among scores of nominees who Senate Democratic leadership want to confirm before the new Congress kicks in, but it remains unclear if he will come up for a vote.
HuffPost reached out to several other senators whose support could be vital to Murthy's confirmation. Aides to Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), John Walsh (D-Mont.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) did not return a request for comment.