Key Republicans back VA secretary as talk of firing escalates

Key Republicans back VA secretary as talk of firing escalates
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Key Republicans are sticking by Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinTrump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? It’s time to end the scare tactics and get to work for our veterans MORE as rumors of his firing swirl.

The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have offered their support to Shulkin in recent days, as has the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s veterans subpanel.

Still, at least two rank-and-file Republicans have called for Shulkin’s removal, and a Republican senator who accused Shulkin of double-talk even before he was engulfed in controversy has offered neither support nor condemnation.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE, meanwhile, said Thursday reports of an imminent shake-up in his administration are “false,” though he added cryptically, “there will always be change.”

"It was a very false story," Trump said in the Oval Office. "A very exaggerated and false story. But there will always be change, and I think you want to see change, and I want to also see different ideas.”

Trump’s abrupt firing Tuesday of Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonLeaked Trump transition vetting documents show numerous officials with 'red flags': Axios Bolton says Russia, China seeking to promote discord in Trump administration Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds MORE as secretary of State has stirred widespread speculation that more changes could be imminent.

One of the Cabinet members reportedly on the chopping block is Shulkin, who has been embattled since a scathing inspector general report was released in February.

That report accused Shulkin of misusing taxpayer dollars on a trip to Europe by spending most of the time sightseeing rather than conducting official business. It also said a top aide altered an email to gain approval to use taxpayer money to pay for Shulkin’s wife to accompany him and that he improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match.

After the report’s release, tensions in the department that had been building for months spilled out into the open. Shulkin accused turmoil on an internal rebellion by some Trump appointees, and reports surfaced that two senior VA officials tried to oust Shulkin late last year.

Since then, more bad news for Shulkin has piled up, including reports of another inspector general investigation into an allegation that Shulkin asked a member of his security detail to accompany him to a Home Depot and carry furniture items into his home.

It’s a remarkable turn of fate for someone who appeared to be the least controversial of Trump’s Cabinet members. Shulkin, the only Cabinet member who also served in the Obama administration, was confirmed unanimously. He appeared frequently in the White House briefing room during Trump’s first year to tout accomplishments, and Trump said in June that he’ll “never have to use” his reality show catchphrase, “You’re fired,” on Shulkin.

The dispute between Shulkin and other Trump appointees centers on changes to a program that allows some veterans to seek private health care. Shulkin favors a modest expansion of the program known as Choice that would still leave it up to VA doctors whether patients can seek private care.

Shulkin’s opponents, though, say that approach is out of step with sweeping reforms Trump promised during his presidential campaign. They want a more aggressive change to the Choice program that critics say would amount to privatization of the VA.

A congressional aide said Thursday that Shulkin continues to negotiate with Congress on the Choice bill, but that his stance is still out of step with the White House, suggesting that his standing is perilous. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.

But the chairmen of the Veterans Affairs committees have offered their unqualified support for Shulkin to stay in the job.

“I think Dr. Shulkin has done a bang-up job,” House Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeHouse conservative's procedural protest met with bipartisan gripes This Memorial Day, I challenge everyone to find a way to honor our nation's fallen Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access MORE (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday. “We certainly, on both sides of the aisle, have worked with him very well. I would certainly hate to see him leave that position. We have a great working relationship.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump MORE (R-Ga.) added Thursday that the senator “fully supports” Shulkin.

“We look forward to continuing the progress we have made since he was sworn in as VA secretary on behalf of our nation’s veterans,” spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said in an email.

Arriving at a budget hearing Thursday morning, Shulkin told reporters he hadn’t spoken to Trump and ignored questions about if he feels secure in his job.

During the hearing, Shulkin said he thinks the VA is getting “back on track.”

“There are a lot of people that frankly are more interested in politics than I am,” he told the House Appropriations Committee’s veterans subpanel. “I’m interested in getting this job done. And I’ve made it clear to everybody in my department that I have no tolerance for anything other than the business that we have to do for VA. I believe that we are getting back on track with that, and I’m going to do everything I can to keep our focus on the work that we have to do because there’s a lot of work to do, as you mentioned, that impacts people’s lives.”

The chairman of the subpanel, moderate Republican Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentCNN celebrates correspondents' weekend with New Orleans-themed brunch The Hill's Morning Report - Government is funded, but for how long? Ex-GOP lawmaker says his party is having a 'Monty Python' moment on shutdown MORE (Pa.), offered Shulkin his support.

“As always, we certainly appreciate your hard work, your dedication to our veterans and the positive changes you’ve been able to make for veterans’ lives,” Dent said. “My interactions with you have always been very substantive and professional on these very weighty issues.”

Still, there are signs of discontent in Congress.

In January, Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s veterans subpanel, accused Shulkin of “double-talk” in negotiating the Choice bill.

“I am of the opinion that our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth,” Moran said at a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, of which he is also a member.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Moran would say only that the senator appreciates working with Shulkin on the bill.

“Sen. Moran sought and received Sec. Shulkin’s assistance in securing his changes to strengthen the Senate VA Choice reform bill, and the senator is appreciative of his support for those modifications,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanKoch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' MORE (R-Colo.) called for Shulkin’s resignation immediately after the February inspector general report and has renewed the call several times since.

“I really hope that @POTUS @realDonaldTrump finally fires @DeptVetAffairs Secretary @SecShulkin as he will never clean up the incompetence and corruption at the VA. As the only Member who has made this call, our VETS deserve better!!  #FireShulkin now,” Coffman tweeted Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) joined Coffman’s call, sending a letter to Trump saying Shulkin has “refused to engage” with him on issues at the Phoenix VA. 

“Mr. President, I want to help you fulfill the promises we made to our veterans,” Biggs wrote. “The first step is for Secretary Shulkin to resign.”