The Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs Monday in a bipartisan vote that signals both parties realize the critical issues at the second largest government department.
A total of 39 Democratic senators voted in favor of Robert Wilkie, who served as interim director of the VA earlier in 2018, bringing the total to 86 yes votes.
“Robert Wilkie is the real deal,” Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said before the vote, The Washington Post reported. “I told him, ‘You have no excuses.’ We’re here to make sure VA has no excuses, only results.”
Wilkie himself told the Veterans Affairs Committee that he was ready to lead the department without excuses.
“As [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] said when this Congress passed a $700 billion defense budget, there are no more excuses,” Wilkie told the committee in June. “You and the ranking member have infused VA with a $200 billion budget. You have passed the Accountability Act to shake up complacency, and you have passed the Mission Act to bring institutional VA, community care, and caregivers closer together. The future now is up to the department.”
The issues facing the VA were compounded by political scandal in 2018 regarding the former head of the department, and Trump’s first attempt to replace him. After former VA secretary David Shulkin departed the agency in March amid allegations he used government resources for European vacations for himself and his wife, Trump nominated White House doctor Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson. Jackson had little leadership experience, and the White House pulled his nomination after allegations of misconduct for how he led the White House medical team under former President Barack Obama.
With Wilkie, the Senate hopes to leave the political scandals and focus on the problems facing veterans. For Democrats, a report that interim political staff at the VA were being forced out over the past few months spurred quick action.
“Today, like never before, we’ve got political forces at work inside VA,” Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said.
“Good employees are being forced out not because of the job they’re doing but because of their views,” Tester said. “Veterans need a leader who will build bridges, not tear down the department to meet a political agenda.”
The Washington Post reported that Peter O’Rourke, the former Trump campaign advisor serving as acting VA chief during Wilkie’s confirmation proceedings, had been reassigning senior VA officials to lesser roles if they disagreed with his leadership. (RELATED: Trump: If Somebody At The VA Treats Vets Poorly, ‘You’re Fired, That’s It)
Unlike Jackson, Wilkie had extensive experience within the multiple government branches. He has served in both the Navy and the Air Force, and his government roles include the Department of Defense, where he was the youngest senior leader from 2005 to 2009, the National Security Council at the White House under former President George W. Bush, where he was a senior director, and in Congress as senior advisor to North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.
Veterans advocates hope Wilkie’s extensive experience will allow him to reform the troubled VA and allow it to fulfill its mission to provide timely and efficient care to veterans.
“Modernizing and reforming the VA is a tough task that will take time, patience, and energy,” Dan Caldwell, executive director for Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans advocacy group, said in a statement.
Wilkie “has shown himself to be a knowledgeable and steady leader capable of the task ahead,” Caldwell said, adding that in light of the “major changes coming to the VA, the Senate has put the right man in place to shepherd the agency through a time of transition and to ensure a strong VA for today’s veterans and tomorrow’s.”
In a statement, Trump said “under Wilkie’s leadership, I have no doubt that the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to make strides in honoring and protecting the heroic men and women who have served our Nation with distinction.”
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