Dr. David Satcher won Senate confirmation on Tuesday as surgeon general, becoming the first person in more than three years to fill a post that has become a lightning rod in the nation’s battles over abortion and family values.
Satcher, the 56-year-old director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency whose headquarters are in Atlanta, prevailed on a vote of 63 to 35 after conservatives led by Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, an aspiring Republican presidential nominee, fell far short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a vote on President Clinton’s nominee.
“I can think of no one better qualified to be surgeon general,” said Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a doctor who had appealed to his fellow Republicans to support Satcher for the post, whose occupant is sometimes known as “America’s family doctor.” Ultimately, 19 Republicans joined 44 Democrats in voting for Satcher’s confirmation.
In a statement after the vote, the president called his nominee “a mainstream physician who is an eloquent advocate for the health of all Americans.” He said Satcher would be “a leading voice” in the effort to pass comprehensive tobacco legislation this year.
Satcher, an expert in sickle cell anemia who has embraced a wide range of public health concerns, initially was considered a non-provocative choice by the White House and an antidote to the controversy that had swirled around the surgeon general’s post since the start of the Clinton presidency.
The last person to hold the job, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, was dismissed by Clinton after making impolitic remarks on masturbation. And Dr. Henry Foster Jr., an obstetrician whom Clinton tapped to succeed her, saw his nomination founder in 1995 when he acknowledged that he had performed abortions.
Despite his 12-to-5 approval by a Senate committee, Satcher unexpectedly ran into trouble from conservatives last fall because he agreed with the president that a ban on a form of abortion in the late stages of pregnancy, called “partial-birth abortion” by opponents, should contain an exception for the health of the mother.
Satcher’s opponents also raised ethical questions about experiments that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had conducted in which pregnant African women infected with the AIDS virus were given placebos. And they protested that the doctor had supported a study of needle exchange programs intended to stop the spread of HIV among drug addicts.
“In my view, it does not make sense to give dope addicts needles with which to conduct their poisonous activity,” Ashcroft said Tuesday, leading the debate against Satcher.
Ashcroft, who would like to run for president in 2000 and is vying for the allegiance of social conservatives in his party, maintained that Satcher’s position on abortion made him unfit to be surgeon general.
“This is about whether someone who is indifferent to infanticide can care for our children,” he said.
Across several days of debate, Ashcroft tried to turn the confirmation vote into a broad critique of what he called “failure after failure, morally and ethically,” by the Clinton administration.
But several prominent Republicans spoke on Satcher’s behalf, citing his long history of public service and his rise from a family of poor black farmers in rural Alabama to become the head of the disease control centers.
“Frankly, I find his life inspiring,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “He is an American success story.”
Frist strongly defended Satcher, even though he disagreed with the nominee on abortion. He cited Satcher’s promise to him that as surgeon general he would “focus on issues that unite Americans, not divide them,” including campaigns against smoking and teenage sex.
Frist and other supporters said Satcher’s nomination had never been in serious jeopardy despite being caught up in the abortion issue. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the opposition to Satcher “was really an excuse to play to the raw emotions that are out there on this difficult and emotional issue.”
Satcher’s medical career has been marked by the twin themes of race and poverty. He was the driving force behind Clinton’s decision last year to apologize to survivors of the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment, in which black men in Alabama were left untreated for syphilis. The 40-year study, which officially ended in 1972, involved more than 600 men.
On Tuesday, Satcher called his confirmation as surgeon general “an American dream come true.”