Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday met with Senators to discuss the VA's budget for fiscal 2017 and appropriations for the following year.
But the issue of funding took a backseat in the discussion as lawmakers were more intent to talk about McDonald's proposals to hold VA employees accountable for wrongdoing or poor performance.
"My goal is to see to it that by the end of March we have an accountability bill for the VA employees that's right for the veterans and right for those employees," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"We are looking to the future to ensure that if we have problems ... we have a defensible accountability system within the department to correct a wrong and make sure it does not happen again, he added.
Isakson and other lawmakers said they were ready to give McDonald the ability to make both the hiring and firing of employees easier.
As part of the department's budget proposal, McDonald asked Congress to convert Senior Executive Service-level employees -- top administrators and directors at the VA's medical centers -- to Title 38 employees -- the category that includes doctors and nurses.
McDonald said the change would make it easier to fill the 34 medical center directorships that have been open, in some cases for years, and also to discipline employees when necessary. In the latter case, the change would end the executives' ability to appeal disciplinary actions to the Merit System Protection Board by making McDonald, or his designee, the final word in an appeal.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, urged the committee to press Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky and the Senate majority Leader, to schedule a vote on the changes.
"We need to push the leadership to get this to the floor and hold this man (McDonald) accountable," Tester said. "We can't hold him accountable if his hands are tied ... If he screws up [he's] gone. But the fact is," he said to the secretary, "I trust you, I believe you can get this done."
Saying there is a "very limited amount of time" to move the legislation, Tester told Isakson that "if it takes a letter, if it takes phone calls, if it takes a group meeting with Sen. McConnell, I'll join you in that."
Converting the administration and directorships from SES to Title 38, the section of the law that spells out the hiring practices for VA health care workers and others -- was prompted by recent MSPB judge rulings overturning VA disciplinary actions against executives accused of wrongdoing.
McDonald told the lawmakers that converting the job categories is not only about being able to discipline people. He said it's also about being more competitive with the private sector in recruiting and compensation, since it is easier to hire and compensate under Title 38 than the Civil Service rules for SES employees.
"It's not about firing people," he said. "It's about treating VA career executives more like their private sector counterparts. It's the kind of flexibility that attracts top performers in the private sector. VA needs that flexibility, too."