Vulnerable Dems flock to Rubio’s VA bill

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Five Senate Democrats, including some of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents, have signed onto legislation sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), giving the secretary of Veterans Affairs more power to fire underperforming officials.

Democrats have flocked to Rubio’s version of the bill that passed the House last week 390-33.

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“This legislation would bring basic accountability to the VA and ensure the people responsible for the gross negligence and mistreatment of our nation’s heroes are punished,” Rubio said in a statement.

“I hope more Senate Democrats will join Republicans in sponsoring this measure and insist that Democratic leadership drop their obstruction to this common sense legislation,” he added.

Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Warner (Va.), who are all running for reelection, signed onto Rubio’s bill Wednesday. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) co-sponsored the measure last week.

Rubio’s bill has driven a wedge between vulnerable Democratic incumbents and Senate Democratic leaders who want Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to move his own legislation through the committee.

Rubio emphasized Thursday that his bill could reach President Obama’s desk sooner.

“Fifty senators, including five Democrats, have now signaled their support for common sense legislation that the Senate could pass and send to the President as early as next week,” Rubio said.

His proposal would allow VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or his successor to fire officials the department’s inspector general has found responsible for mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment and bullying behavior.

Current law does not give the secretary that power.

Some Democratic leaders worry Rubio’s proposal could undermine protections for federal employees. 

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), who represents many federal workers in his district and voted against the House version, warned last week that it “opens the door to undoing the careful civil service protections that have been in place for decades.”

Rubio attempted to pass his legislation by unanimous consent on the floor last week, but Sanders objected.

Shaheen said in a statement Thursday that she co-sponsored Rubio’s bill because the VA’s inspector general had found rampant mismanagement at the department.

“The inspector general's preliminary findings released this afternoon are horrendous and underscore the need for immediate action,” she said. “We need to not only implement reforms, but there must be accountability for those who have failed the thousands of brave men and women who have served our country.”

Shinseki’s support among Democratic lawmakers has eroded this week, as Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), and John Walsh (Mont.), who each have tough races, as well as Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) called for his resignation.