VA nominee heads to full Senate confirmation

VA nominee heads to full Senate confirmation
© Greg Nash

Robert Wilkie, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, is one step closer to confirmation after a Senate panel Monday voted to send his nomination to the floor.

In a voice vote, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted nearly unanimously to approve Wilkie’s nomination. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Trump faces steep climb to reelection California Democrats face crisis of credibility after lawsuits Fox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel MORE (I-Vt.) voted against it.

"We applaud the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for the overwhelming, bipartisan vote to favorably report Robert Wilkie to be the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs," the White House said in a statement following the vote. "We look forward to the full Senate confirming him as soon as possible."

Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary until he stepped down after being nominated for secretary, is a Washington insider with years of administrative experience who has previously worked on Capitol Hill as well as in the Pentagon for two presidents.

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He’s drawn praise from both Republicans and Democrats, and outside advocacy groups hope he will avoid getting mired in the same ongoing fight over privatization that beset his predecessor, former 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.

Wilkie sailed through the committee’s confirmation hearing last month. He vowed to raise morale at an agency that lawmakers say has been beset by internal politics.

He said he would stand up to the White House and the VA’s political leaders to implement his agenda, even if it means disagreeing at times with President Trump. Importantly for Democrats, Wilkie pledged to oppose privatization.

"My commitment to you is I will oppose efforts to privatize," even if it runs counter to the White House agenda, Wilkie said. “I am opposed to the privatization of the Veterans Affairs Department.”

During the confirmation hearing, Committee Ranking Member Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP angst grows amid Trump trade war Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Pentagon approves transfer of .5B to border wall | Dems blast move | House Dem pushes Pelosi to sue over Trump's Yemen veto Pentagon approves transfer of .5B to Trump border wall from Afghan forces, other accounts MORE (D-Mont.) said he thinks Wilkie is the right candidate to return the VA back to its roots as an agency that serves veterans regardless of political agendas.

“Recently we have seen VA political cronies work actively and publicly to undermine a secretary and a deputy secretary who were unanimously confirmed by the Senate,” Tester said.

He noted the VA’s official media account has recently been attacking reporters as “fake news” and the voices of political interest groups have been prioritized over veterans interest groups.

“Robert, I need to know you are the guy who understands the VA has larger challenges, and I think you do,” Tester said.

Wilkie’s nomination follows the fall of Ronny Jackson, Trump’s personal physician, who the president nominated to head the VA after Shulkin. Jackson faced questions about his experience and ability to lead the second-largest bureaucracy in the federal government.

Jackson was ultimately forced to withdraw his nomination after allegations — publicly detailed by Tester — surfaced that he mishandled prescription drugs, drank on the job and created a hostile work environment.  

Unlike Jackson, Wilkie has already been through an executive vetting process, when he was nominated for Pentagon posts under Trump and former President George W. Bush.

Updated at 2:51 p.m.