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 ShulkinPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week Trump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report 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 TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? 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 TillersonScaramucci breaks up with Trump in now-familiar pattern Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank 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 RoeWant to solve surprise medical bills? Listen to patients House conservative's procedural protest met with bipartisan gripes This Memorial Day, I challenge everyone to find a way to honor our nation's fallen 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 IsaksonGeorgia senator discharged from hospital after fall Georgia senator hospitalized after fall Senate GOP raises concerns about White House stopgap plan to avoid shutdown 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 DentThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps The Hill's 12:30 Report: Muller testimony dominates Washington Lawmakers, press hit the courts for charity tennis event 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) MoranSenators introduce bill aimed at protecting Olympic athletes in response to abuse scandals Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess Senate fails to override Trump veto on 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 CoffmanBottom Line Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform 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.”