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Senate Democrats dig in to block Bush's appointing of Holsinger

Democrats will stay in session over the holiday break to prevent the naming of Kentuckian Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. as U.S. surgeon general.  File photo by Chuck Kennedy | McClatchy-Tribune
Democrats will stay in session over the holiday break to prevent the naming of Kentuckian Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. as U.S. surgeon general. File photo by Chuck Kennedy | McClatchy-Tribune

Democrats will stay in session over the holiday break to prevent President Bush from naming Kentucky Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. as U.S. surgeon general and to block other "objectionable nominees."

"I will keep the Senate in pro forma session to block the president from doing an end run around the Senate and the Constitution with his controversial nominations," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday evening. "So Mr. President, I hope this is a Christmas present for these people. These are important jobs, and I wish them well ... and wish them all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

Holsinger served as Gov. Ernie Fletcher's secretary for Health and Family Services from 2003 through 2005, was a professor and chancellor of the University of Kentucky's medical center for nine years in addition to other academic and administrative medical school posts across the country, and served for 26 years in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He has a master's degree in biblical studies from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.

For Holsinger, the quest to be the nation's top public health position has been anything but merry. He declined to comment on Senate Democrats' move to block a possible presidential recess appointment or on his rocky confirmation process.

Earlier this year, Holsinger faced strident criticism from gay rights groups, the National Organization for Women, the American Public Health Association and some public health experts, for a Methodist church paper he wrote in 1991 titled "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality," which described same-sex intercourse as incompatible with Christian teaching.

Holsinger sought to distance himself from the paper during a July Senate hearing, saying the comments don't reflect his current views. But Senate Democrats have since refused to move forward with a confirmation until Holsinger completes written responses to questions posed by members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The surgeon general's post has been highly politicized in recent years. Days before Holsinger's committee hearing, a former surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the White House prevented him from speaking publicly about stem-cell research and sex education, among other health topics.

For now, Holsinger will have to continue to plod through questions from the Senate committee, which Department of Health and Human Services officials described as weighty "literature reviews on several issues" that "take months" to write.

"We fully support his nomination, and we're working to address the committee's questions as quickly as possible," said Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, where the office of surgeon general is based.

In the meantime, Dr. Steven Galson, a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, was named acting surgeon general.

White House officials said the administration backs Holsinger's nomination and wants to see him move forward in the confirmation process.

"Dr. Holsinger is a highly respected, well-qualified physician and educator who will make an outstanding Surgeon General. We remain committed to working with the Senate to get him confirmed," said White House spokesman Blair Jones.

Jones said the decision by Senate Democrats to stay in session "proves yet again that they are failing the American people by allowing important departments and agencies to remain vacant. We hope the Democratic leadership in the Senate will decide to spend its time more constructively and move forward on the many nominees that await consideration for important positions."

Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning said they remain steadfast in supporting Holsinger's nomination.

"Dr. Holsinger is a fine man who has dedicated his life to the Army and the medical profession," Bunning said. "He is well qualified to be the surgeon general and deserves an up-or-down vote on his nomination. If the U.S. Senate fails to give a nominee of Jim Holsinger's caliber a fair shake, the whole confirmation process is given a black eye."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the committee overseeing Holsinger's confirmation process, is one of several lawmakers tentatively tapped to gavel in the empty Senate chamber during the holiday break. During this summer's hearings, Kennedy expressed concern over whether Holsinger could put "public health first and leave politics and ideology behind."

Leading Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois also rank among Holsinger's toughest critics.

"America's top doctor should be a doctor for all Americans," Obama said earlier this year. "I have serious reservations about nominating someone who would inject his own anti-gay ideology into critical decisions about the health and well-being of our nation."