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New VA Secretary Urged to Push Hiring Freeze Exemptions

Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. listen as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during his swearing in ceremony in Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Feb. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. listen as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks during his swearing in ceremony in Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Feb. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Dr. David Shulkin was sworn in Tuesday as secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department and immediately was urged to begin approving thousands of exemptions to President Donald Trump's federal hiring freeze.

At Shulkin's swearing-in, Vice President Mike Pence said, "Few duties of government are as important as fulfilling what President [Abraham] Lincoln promised, which is that we as a nation shall care for him who has borne the battle."

Trump "has now called on you to lead the department charged with that solemn and historic promise," Pence said.

Shulkin, who was approved by the Senate in a 100-0 vote Monday night, said, "I think we have a system that's doing terrific things with very dedicated people, but we all know we have a lot of work to do. We all agree that our veterans deserve the very, very best that we can do."

He said the bipartisan nature of the unanimous vote that approved him was reflected in the presence at the oath ceremony of the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees -- Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jon Tester of Montana, and Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Tim Walz of Minnesota.

Earlier, Walz told Military.com that Shulkin should get busy signing off on public safety exemptions to Trump's across-the-board 90-day hiring freeze.

"Let Dr. Shulkin make those decisions. I trust his take on this," said Walz, a retired command sergeant major in the Army National Guard and the highest-ranking enlisted service member ever to be elected to Congress.

In his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Shulkin said there are about 45,000 vacancies at the VA and he is in favor of filling 37,000 of them, particularly for critical shortages for doctors and nurses.

New Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is in a similar situation at the Pentagon. He also has the authority to make public safety exemptions to the hiring freeze for the civilian workforce. A Pentagon spokesman said Monday that there are about 67,000 vacancies at the Defense Department, but no exemptions have been approved yet.

The initial guidance put out by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the civil service, said exemptions to the hiring freeze would be "limited" but also said that the secretary of Veterans Affairs and the defense secretary would have wide discretion to approve exemptions for public safety and health reasons.

Shortly after Trump issued the memo on the hiring freeze last month, then-acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder stated, "The Department of Veterans Affairs intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public health and safety, including frontline caregivers. The president and VA remain committed to seeing that our veterans receive the quality care and benefits they've earned. This is the right thing to do for our veterans."

Snyder then issued his own memo listing the positions that could be exempted, ranging from medical officer and nurse to security guard and laundry worker.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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