President Trump’s third nominee to serve as head of the Veterans Affairs Department faced a relatively smooth confirmation hearing on Wednesday, with lawmakers on both sides demonstrating little interest in blocking his appointment.
Robert Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary after President Trump fired David Shulkin earlier this year (until Wilkie was nominated to fill the position permanently), easily brushed aside the few potentially difficult questions lobbed his way. In particular, Wilkie assuaged various concerns by stating he has no interest in privatizing the department, promising to fill vacancies throughout VA, and knocking down reports questioning his commitment to diversity and antidiscrimination efforts.
Wilkie was nominated to the position after Trump’s initial replacement for Shulkin, Ronny Jackson, was forced to withdraw when questions surfaced about his management experience and his record as a White House physician. Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed Wilkie last year to serve as the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness. Democrats on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee expressed their approval for the nominee throughout the hearing, saying they expect him to sail through the confirmation process.
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“It’s really important we have a strong leader,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the panel. “You have a lot of challenges in front of you and I would just say that I think you've got the tools to do the job.”
Wilkie said his top priorities as secretary will be to improve access to care by implementing a recently signed law to ease veterans' access to private sector care on the government’s dime, reduce the claims backlog, reform business systems such as human resources and improve the culture of VA to offer “world-class customer service.” Despite the recent passage of the MISSION Act, Wilkie said he has no interest in broader efforts to eliminate the government’s role in providing care and services to veterans.
“My commitment to you is I will oppose efforts to privatize the VA,” Wilkie said after facing questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Wilkie acknowledged the law was a “radical change,” and promised to move quickly to find private sector partners to create a “community network” to supplement the department’s 1,200 VA medical facilities. Still, he pledged to keep VA central to any care veterans receive. The department’s biggest challenge, he said, is getting veterans in the door. He added he was not interested in taking a “blunderbuss approach” on filling vacancies at VA, saying he would focus on key priorities such as primary care clinicians, mental health professionals and women’s health specialists.
The nominee also promised to boost pay rates for low-ranking VA employees to address turnover.
“It is incumbent upon the secretary of the VA to have long discussions with the Office of Personnel Management to make sure that the secretary and those that work for him have the ability to adjust pay scales so that people who are there at the very ground level treat him respectfully and stay in that job and learn what it means to talk to veterans,” Wilkie said.
The secretary-designate promised to stand up to outside groups and Trump if they advocate policies not in veterans’ best interests. He also broke with the current VA acting secretary, Peter O’Rourke, in saying the department’s inspector general must maintain independence and is not a subordinate of the secretary.
A few senators pressed Wilkie on a recent Washington Post report noting his work for a former senator who faced frequent accusations of racism, his participation in ceremonies honoring the confederate flag, his advocacy against gender-based pay equality and other issues. Wilkie told the committee members the report focused disproprotionately on his record from 25 years ago and said he stood on his record on issues of equality and diversity. Lawmakers showed little interest in pushing the matter further, though Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she still had lingering questions she would send to Wilkie in writing.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee’s chairman, pointed to the huge surge of funding VA has enjoyed in recent years in demanding that Wilkie bring positive change to the department.
“There are no excuses anymore,” Isakson cautioned. “Failure is not an option.”
Despite the overall friendly nature of the majority of the hearing, lawmakers warned Wilkie not to get too comfortable.
“Enjoy the honeymoon,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., “because the floggings will begin soon.”