GOP, vet groups react with caution to Trump VA pick

GOP, vet groups react with caution to Trump VA pick

Senators and influential veterans groups are withholding judgment on President TrumpDonald John Trump20 weeks out from midterms, Dems and GOP brace for surprises Sessions responds to Nazi comparisons: 'They were keeping the Jews from leaving' Kim Jong Un to visit Beijing this week MORE’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a Navy doctor with no experience leading a federal bureaucracy.

Both the Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said only that they look forward to meeting Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson. Several veterans groups expressed some concern about Jackson’s qualifications, but did not immediately oppose him, saying that questions need to be answered during the confirmation process.

“We look forward to understanding more about the qualifications of Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, MD to helm the VA during this critical time,” Carl Blake, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said in a statement. “The VA has a broad mission and the secretary must be someone who is eminently qualified to lead the nation's second largest cabinet agency.”

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On Wednesday night, Trump announced on Twitter that he’d tapped Jackson to replace David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinPress: Drain the swamp – of Scott Pruitt Overnight Defense: Top general defends Afghan war progress | VA shuffles leadership | Pacific Command gets new leader, name | Pentagon sued over HIV policy Trump taps VA chief of staff to run department on interim basis MORE, who fell out of the president’s good graces after turmoil over the direction of private health care for veterans and a scathing inspector general report accusing him of misusing taxpayer dollars on a trip to Europe.

Shulkin’s firing was expected, but Jackson was not among the names circulating as possible replacements.

Statements from lawmakers and veterans groups poured in Wednesday night, heavily praising Shulkin for his service at the department.

When it came to Jackson, though, the statements were generally shorter and more neutral.

“I look forward to meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him,” Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonOvernight Finance: Senators introduce bill to curb Trump's tariff authority | McConnell calls it 'exercise in futility' | Kudlow warns WTO won't dictate policy | Mulvaney feud with consumer advocates deepens Senators introduce bill to curb Trump's tariff authority Trump VA pick boosts hopes for reform MORE (R-Ga.) said in a statement.

In a separate statement, committee ranking member Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterManchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families Trump signs VA reform bill without Democratic co-author The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Primary results give both parties hopes for November MORE (D-Mont.) likewise said he looks “forward to meeting Admiral Jackson soon and seeing if he is up to the job.”

Jackson was first thrust into the public spotlight when he gave Trump a clean bill of health in January during a lengthy and unusual press briefing at the White House.

Jackson told reporters that a cognitive test showed “no reason whatsoever to think the president has any issues whatsoever with his thought processes.” He also proclaimed Trump’s “overall health is excellent,” crediting the president’s “good genes” despite a well-known penchant for fast food and lack of exercise.

Jackson has served as a White House physician since 2006 and was promoted by former President Obama in 2013 to become the physician to the president.

Just last week, Trump nominated Jackson for a promotion in rank from rear admiral (lower half) to rear admiral. Jackson is expected to retire from active duty if confirmed.

A Texas native who received his doctorate of medicine from the University of Texas Medical Branch, Jackson started his naval career in 1995 at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Virginia, according to his Navy biography.

In 2005, Jackson deployed as part of the Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon in Taqaddum, Iraq. There, he served as the emergency physician in charge of resuscitative medicine.

His bio lists several awards, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal and the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

But it makes no mention of any work on veterans issues.

Still, the White House says Trump has “full confidence” in Jackson, adding he believes the department needs someone who understands health care.

If confirmed, Jackson would take the helm at the government’s second largest bureaucracy at a time when the VA is still regaining trust after a 2014 scandal over long and falsified wait times for veterans seeking health care.

In addition to overseeing 1,700 health-care sites serving almost 9 million veterans annually, the doctor would be in charge of benefits delivery, 360,000 employees and a nearly $200-billion budget.

Jackson would also come in during a raging debate over legislation to expand a program known as Choice that provides private health care to some veterans -- a concern seen as central to Shulkin’s undoing.

At issue is how much to expand the program. Veterans groups and Democrats fear the White House wants to essentially privatize veterans health care, which they warn would not be able to address the unique challenges veterans face.

Jackson’s position on the issue is unknown, though the White House said Thursday in response to accusations made by Shulkin that “there are no discussions about privatizing” the VA.

Veterans service organizations, which are congressionally chartered and hold substantial sway over veterans issues in Congress, raised questions about Jackson’s qualifications.

AMVETS listed several questions for Jackson, including how someone who’s never held a command is qualified to lead a massive bureaucracy and what his qualifications are to address issues outside of health care including claims, appeals, benefits and cemetery affairs.

“I am deeply concerned about the nominee,” AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly said in a statement. “Veterans’ lives depend on this decision, and the Trump administration needs to substantiate that this active-duty Navy officer is qualified to run a $200 billion bureaucracy, the second largest agency in the government.”

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) said they look forward to “learning more about the qualifications and views” of Jackson and expressed concern about a leadership vacuum.

“At a time of critical negotiations over the future of veterans healthcare reform, VA today has no secretary, no under secretary of health or benefits, and the named acting secretary has no background in health care and no apparent experience working in or with the department,” DAV Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster said in a statement, referring to acting Secretary Robert Wilkie, who comes from the Pentagon.

“We certainly expect the next secretary to continue the path set by VA, Congress and veterans organizations in recent years to strengthen the VA healthcare system while ensuring that all enrolled veterans have timely access to quality care, whenever and wherever they need it.”

Still, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) said Jackson will understand veterans’ needs.

“We are pleased that he is a combat veteran with firsthand knowledge of the trauma of war, and as such, will understand what our veterans need,” VVA National President John Rowan said in a statement.

VA secretaries typically receive strong bipartisan support in their confirmation. Shulkin was confirmed unanimously, as was his predecessor Bob McDonald. The secretary before that, Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiTrump VA pick boosts hopes for reform Trump VA pick faces challenge to convince senators he’s ready for job Is Ronny Jackson qualified to be the next VA secretary? Let's look at his predecessors MORE, was confirmed by voice vote.

Nominees only need a simple majority to be confirmed. But Republicans only have a two-seat advantage over Democrats in the Senate, and one Republican, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril McCain calls on Trump to rescind family separation policy: It's 'an affront to the decency of the American people' Senate passes 6B defense bill MORE (Ariz.), has not voted in months as he receives cancer treatment in his home state.

Republicans on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee appeared inclined to support Jackson.

“I look forward to working with Dr. Ronny Jackson on modernizing and reforming the VA, fixing the VA Choice Program, and implementing the major reforms that Congress has passed over the last year,” Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisCongress must confront sexual abuse of military children With caveats, Republicans praise Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un McConnell: Any North Korea deal should be submitted to Congress MORE (R-N.C.) said in a statement.

Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranFormer USA Gymnastics CEO pleads Fifth at hearing GOP, Trump at odds on pardon power Lawmakers request meeting with Amtrak CEO over funding for route MORE (R-Kan.), who in January accused Shulkin of “double-talk” in negotiating on Choice, said the VA secretary needs to focus on changing the department’s bureaucracy.

“Rear Admiral Jackson has a career in service and I look forward to discussing his plans for the VA to make certain veterans receive access to care they deserve,” Moran said in a statement.

Committee Democrats, meanwhile, promised close scrutiny of Jackson’s qualifications and his position on privatization.

“I will seriously scrutinize the president’s nominee, Ronny Jackson, because our nation’s veterans deserve the best,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenate passes 6B defense bill Manchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families Kasich: There’s a disease in American politics MORE (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, was more blunt.

“The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs should not approve any nominee for secretary who supports the privatization of the VA,” he said in a statement.