Healthcare

Senators hope Trump’s next VA pick will be less controversial

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Senators from both parties hope that President Trump will make his next choice for the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs a less controversial one after former nominee Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration.

GOP senators were spared a messy confirmation fight when Jackson withdrew his name early Thursday morning amid mounting accusations of professional misconduct. 

The VA has typically been an agency that rises above partisanship, and past secretaries have won bipartisan support in confirmation votes. Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who Trump fired last month, sailed through the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on a unanimous vote last year.

{mosads}Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the panel, and committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) sorted through the allegations against Jackson, the physician to the president, together and jointly decided to postpone Jackson’s confirmation hearing.

“I think everyone has, over the years, felt like there are some issues that shouldn’t become political footballs, and dealing with America’s veterans should be one of those,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill.

But there’s concern that Trump could react to Jackson’s failed nomination with another pick that brings political baggage to the job. 

Trump called into Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” morning show on Thursday shortly after Jackson dropped out, blaming Democrats for sinking the nomination. 

“These are false accusations,” Trump said. “They’re trying to destroy a man. I did say, ‘Welcome to Washington. Welcome to the swamp.’”

Trump said he has a replacement in mind for Jackson, but declined to say who it is. He said his next nominee will have more “political capability” than Jackson, who has been a White House physician in the past three administrations.

The president also threatened political retaliation against Tester, who is up for reelection this fall in a state Trump won handily in 2016, for releasing the accusations against Jackson.

“Jon Tester, I think this is going to cause him a lot of problems in his state,” he said. “I think Jon Tester has to have a big price to pay in Montana.” 

Tester declined on Thursday to respond to Trump’s challenge, saying instead that the VA shouldn’t be a political agency. 

“The VA Committee has been a very good committee, and I think there’s folks who’ve tried to insert politics into the VA, and that’s not what we do around here,” Tester said.

“The VA [secretary] is a position that is very bipartisan … and I intend to continue to work to make sure that we have a person who is secretary of the VA who will meet the needs of our veterans,” he added. 

Lawmakers seemed ready to move on from Jackson following more than three days of controversy that included allegations of being drunk on the job, dispensing prescription medication too freely and creating a hostile work environment.

“The White House bungled this nomination from the start — fumbling the facts and vetting and then failing to produce documents. Veterans deserve a first class manager with unquestionable integrity and ability,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

The allegations against Jackson also shined an unflattering light on the administration’s vetting process.

“Clearly, the fact that those allegations were out there shows there were problems with the vetting process,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “I hope that the administration has learned from this experience.” 

Republican and Democratic lawmakers had previously expressed concern over Jackson’s lack of experience leading a large organization and his views on privatizing veterans’ health care services.   

On the heels of Jackson’s decision to withdraw, senators expressed hope that a more qualified candidate could be found soon. The VA has been dogged by scandal, and lawmakers said the agency needs the stability that a confirmed secretary can provide.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who sits on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said stability at the top of the agency is “critical.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told reporters he hopes “the administration would have a nomination ready to go.” 

Moran called for more continuity at the agency, which has seen a rapid turnover of leaders over the past few years.

“The gap at the VA can’t be helpful. We need some continuity, there’s been too much change at the VA over too short a period of time,” Moran said. 

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) also pleaded for stability at the agency. 

“This agency needs stability, it needs a leader, and I thought Dr. Shulkin was that person,” Roe told The Hill. “We need someone who commands respect and then can lead this huge organization.”

Tags David Shulkin David Shulkin Donald Trump Jerry Moran John Thune Johnny Isakson Jon Tester Jon Tester Mike Rounds Phil Roe Susan Collins United States Department of Veterans Affairs

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