The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly confirmed President Obama’s pick to run the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department.
The chamber approved former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald in a 97-0 vote, with lawmakers from both parties expressing confidence that he would reform the troubled agency.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the vote a “testimony to the individual.” He said that McDonald is "very highly credentialed and made a great impression on all of us who he came to visit."
President Obama also praised the vote in a statement.
“As a veteran himself and a proud member of a military family, Bob is deeply committed to serving our veterans and their families,” he said. “And as an executive with decades of private-sector experience, he is uniquely equipped to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, and to help change the way the VA does business.
“I know Bob will help us honor that commitment and make sure every veteran gets the care they deserve, the benefits they’ve earned, and the chance to pursue the American Dream they’ve risked so much to protect,” he added.
Last week, McDonald, a 1975 West Point graduate who served five years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, breezed through his confirmation hearing with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, with broad bipartisan support.
"I desperately want this job because I think I can make a difference," McDonald, 61, told lawmakers during the hearing.
He vowed to hold employees accountable for long waiting times that may have led to the deaths of some veterans.
“Those employees that have violated the trust of the department and of veterans must be, and will be, held accountable,” McDonald said in his written statement.
The full panel had backed McDonald with a unanimous 14-0 vote.
McDonald’s confirmation comes as lawmakers are expected to approve a compromise bipartisan $17 billion VA reform bill.
The measure would give the VA secretary the ability to fire poorly performing officials, allow some veterans to seek private care at hospitals and clinics outside the VA, expand the hiring of doctors, nurses and medical staff, and build 27 new VA facilities.
The bill is expected to get a vote in the Senate later this week.
McDonald inherits an agency that has been wracked for months by scandal after revelations that veterans waited months for appointments at VA medical facilities despite a 14-day maximum waiting time guideline. Reports also allege VA employees at facilities across the country covered up the long waiting times.
The discoveries lead to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on May 30.
The department has since been hit by allegations that managers have retaliated against whistleblowers and that employees manipulated benefits claims to make it appear that a massive backlog was shrinking.
“The VA needs a confirmed secretary in place to begin a long, arduous process in cultural change,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said ahead of the vote. “An enormous amount of work needs to be done to turn the VA around.”
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in a statement. after Tuesday’s vote that McDonald "certainly has his work cut out for him."
The new VA chief must "take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability."
"I look forward to working with him to achieve these objectives," he added.
In his confirmation hearing, McDonald pledged a new level of transparency within the VA and with lawmakers, outlining a series of immediate actions he planed to take during his first 90 days in office.
Those efforts included hosting quarterly videoconferences with officials around the country. He also pledged to travel “extensively” over the first several months of his tenure to hear directly from employees and veterans and establish a board of physicians to advise him on best practices for delivering medical treatment.
McDonald even offered panel members his cell phone number, so they would be able to reach with him with their questions and he could do likewise.
"When I give you my cell phone number, I want yours at the same time," McDonald said.
This story was updated at 4:41 p.m.