A Senate committee unanimously approved the nomination of Dr. Richard Carmona as surgeon general Wednesday, despite questions about his medical record and work history.

The vote by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was conducted quickly at an informal meeting just off the Senate floor. The nomination now goes to the full Senate, which must confirm Carmona to the post which has been vacant since Dr. David Satcher's term expired in February.

The surgeon general has a tiny staff, must rely on other agencies for his budget and holds little power. But the position has proved to be a powerful bully pulpit for disseminating public health information.

At a hearing last week, Carmona, an Arizona trauma surgeon and part-time sheriff's deputy, faced numerous questions about his record. Critics have questioned his qualifications and suggested he lacks the temperament for the post, and have cited reports that it took him eight years to be certified in his field, general surgery, after failing the test twice.

Carmona did not deny that it took him eight years to get certified but said no one had ever questioned his abilities. He said he always treated co-workers with respect.

Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Wednesday that Carmona deserved to be confirmed to the post.

"He satisfactorily addressed difficult questions relating to his professional qualifications, his employment history and his management abilities," Kennedy said in a statement that cited Carmona's commitment to preventive health and the fight against tobacco and AIDS.

"I also believe that the public health community will have his ear, given his record of working to ensure health care for low-income and medically underserved communities," Kennedy said.