In Wake of Scandal, VA Nominees Stuck in Senate Limbo
Key jobs remain vacant as the Senate deals with treatment of veterans and a backlog of nominees.
As the turmoil over the VA scandal unfolds, three top posts in the Department of Veterans Affairs remain vacant because of congressional foot-dragging toward full Senate confirmation.
A fourth key job—the department's inspector general—has remained vacant for nearly half a year. The White House itself has yet to even name a nominee for that post.
There is plenty of blame being tossed around.
The man with the power to set the agenda, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, pins it on Senate Republicans for holding up more than 140 nominations across several departments. He did so Tuesday when asked about the stalled nomination of Linda Schwartz to be assistant secretary for policy and planning at the VA.
Schwartz, who was nominated last August, was reported to the full Senate again in January, after initially being reported in November. As majority leader, Reid could put her nomination on the floor whenever he chooses. Instead, he pointed to the nominations of judges and ambassadors, some of which are subject to delays and holds by the GOP, when asked why he had not advanced the Schwartz nomination yet.
Reid himself suggested the delay is because of continued fallout from changing the Senate rules in November to clear nominations with only 51 votes, rather than 60.
"The Republicans are continuing their pout and we're unable to get the nominations done," Reid said. "I got a letter last April from the secretary of Defense to move these along. So we'll get to her just as quick as we can."
The question, Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson suggested, is not why hasn't Reid acted, but why have Republicans forced Democrats to eat up time through the Senate's arcane process rules.
"Right now, Republicans have a blanket objection to moving virtually all nominees and forcing us to file cloture on everyone," he said in a statement.
Republicans say they have placed no official holds or otherwise had any hand in blocking or delaying full Senate confirmation votes on President Obama's picks for the other three positions.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Richard Burr of North Carolina said he has no objection to Schwartz's nomination and said the delay was Reid's fault.
"Some weeks we do nothing but nominees," Burr said. "And some weeks we do nothing."
Schwartz, who continues to serve as the Connecticut state commissioner of veterans' affairs, expressed some clear antsy-ness.
"This position has been vacant since January of 2013, and I look forward to fulfilling the full intent of my nomination: assisting the VA in its mission of serving veterans and providing the secretary with solid and thoughtful counsel," Schwartz said.
She is herself a former Air Force flight nurse, who medically retired in 1986 after an aircraft accident. In her testimony to the Senate committee in November, she told lawmakers that her goals are "challenging the status quo" and assuring services worthy of veterans.
But that's just one nominee.
The other two nominees—Constance Tobias as chair of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, and Helen Tierney as the department's chief financial officer—are still waiting for the Veterans' Affairs Committee to report their nominations this session.
The timing is unclear, and a spokesman for Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not say when to expect them to head to the floor.
The president nominated Tierney in October, but she has yet to see even committee-level confirmation. Tierney, who currently heads the VA's office of management, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Tobias, who currently chairs the departmental appeals board at the Department of Health and Human Services, also did not respond through a spokesman. Tobias was nominated for the VA post in January 2012.
Another nomination, that of Jeffrey Murawsky to be undersecretary for health, is also pending, but it was submitted only this week by the White House upon the resignation of Robert Petzel in the wake of the VA scandal. The VA Committee is still waiting on the necessary paperwork from the White House before scheduling a hearing for Murawsky, a Senate aide said.
The Senate has not delayed all VA nominees. Earlier this year, the committee forwarded Obama's nomination of Sloan Gibson to be the VA's deputy secretary, and the Senate has since confirmed him as the department's No. 2 officer. He became acting secretary upon Eric Shinseki's resignation last week.
But the other nominees await their day on the floor as the Senate continues to grapple with the fallout of the scandal over delayed and dishonest treatment of veterans at VA medical centers.
Later this week, Sanders will hold a hearing where he'll roll out legislation aimed at addressing the issues. Reid, offering a preview of the bill, said it will not be as broad as a reauthorization bill that failed earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Reid has put an offer on the table for Republicans to review: a vote on a slightly modified version of the bipartisan House-passed VA accountability bill, in exchange for a vote on the Sanders legislation.
Reid hadn't heard back from Republicans on the deal; his offers have not been well received by GOP senators lately, though.