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Senate Committee Advances Bill to Speed Up VA Firing Process

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, file photo, an American flag flies over Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, file photo, an American flag flies over Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs secretary would be able to dismiss poor-performing employees more easily under legislation approved Wednesday by a Senate committee, which sent the bill to a full Senate vote despite concerns from Democrats.

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee passed S. 1094, titled the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, on a voice vote. It was unclear when the full Senate could vote on the bill, but Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the committee, said it would be soon.

The vote came after Republicans on the committee voted down four Democratic amendments to the bill.

The bill is a compromise between the two parties on an issue that has failed to gain traction in Congress for years. Its sponsors are Isakson, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

"The end result is a compromise, in which none of us got everything we wanted," Tester said.

The Senate bill, like a version that passed the House, would shorten the time that VA employees would have to appeal any disciplinary action against them and require quicker determinations from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears the appeals. The bills would also allow the VA secretary to reduce the pension of a VA employee and recoup bonuses and relocation expenses in certain instances.

Further, the Senate bill includes a compromise on a controversial segment of the House bill that would eliminate grievance procedures for employees. The elimination of grievance procedures caused some Democrats to vote against it. The Senate bill would maintain the procedures but place limits on how long they could last.

The legislation also lessens the evidentiary standards that the VA is required to meet to uphold decisions to fire VA employees.

The bill has the support of the VA and about 15 veterans organizations. It's seen by many people as a way to root out a perceived culture of corruption at the department -- an issue that President Donald Trump has upheld as the main problem plaguing the VA.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., offered two amendments to the bill that she said would've balanced a need to fire poor workers with maintaining workforce protections.

"At this point, I can't support it," she said. "I have significant concerns about giving this new power to this administration."

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing approximately 220,000 VA employees, has been fighting the legislation at every step. They've asserted it will allow rank-and-file employees to be fired at will.

The bill had to be edited since last week, when the Department of Justice raised concerns a small part of the legislation was unconstitutional. A former law passed by Congress in 2014 that established a firing process for VA senior executives was recently found by a federal court to be unconstitutional.

If the bill is passed by the full Senate, the revised version would be sent back to the House for a vote.

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