Senate leader urges caution on VA nominee

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised retired Army Lt. Gen. James Peake, President Bush's choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he said Monday that the Senate should proceed with caution on the nomination.

"As we've learned with some of these nominations, you never know what's going to come up in the hearings," Reid said in an apparent reference to the hearings for Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. That nomination is expected to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, despite concerns by some Democrats that he has not said whether he considers waterboarding to be torture.

If the committee clears Mukasey, Reid said the full Senate would probably consider the nomination next week. Reid has not said how he will vote. He spoke highly of Mukasey before the waterboarding issue surfaced at confirmation hearings.

Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had separate meetings Monday with Peake. Both said they hoped hearings on his nomination would begin quickly. A spokesman for Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka said the hearings would probably be held in late November or early December.

If confirmed, Peake would succeed Jim Nicholson, who resigned Oct. 1 after announcing his intention to leave in July.

Peake would take over the VA at a time when the agency is struggling to treat large numbers of wounded soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This morning, Akaka's committee will hold a hearing on conditions at the VA Medical Center in Marion, Ill. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, both of Illinois, have expressed concerns about a reported spike in the death rate at that facility.

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