Wilkie's Nomination as VA Secretary May Face Legal Hurdles

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The head of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said Tuesday he is looking for workarounds to get past a potential roadblock to Robert Wilkie's nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wilkie currently is acting VA secretary, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, the committee's chairman, noted there is a section of the U.S. Code stating an individual cannot serve as an acting secretary and at the same time be nominated to head a government agency.

Isakson said he had yet to receive guidance from the White House or the Justice Department on how to resolve the problem.

There have been cases in the past of acting secretaries who stepped down from the post until they were confirmed, he said, and also cases in which acting secretaries remained on the job and still were confirmed.

Historically, "it's been done both ways," said Isakson, adding that the committee would begin deliberations on Wilkie's nomination after Congress returns from the Memorial Day recess.

At a Senate news conference, both Isakson and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member of the committee, said they had no initial reservations on the nomination of Wilkie, who had been the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness before he moved over to the VA.

"Right now, I certainly don't have anything that would cause me not to support him," Tester said.

"He's a solid guy, but we're going to put him through the process just like anybody who'd be nominated for this position," Isakson said. "We will do our due diligence as we always do."

Tester's opposition was a main factor in the failure of President Donald Trump's first choice to replace former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who was fired by the president in March.

Trump nominated his personal physician and head of the White House medical unit, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, but Jackson withdrew his name amid allegations -- never proven -- that he drank on the job and mishandled prescriptions.

In a surprise announcement last Friday, Trump said he was nominating Wilkie to head the VA, which serves nine million veterans annually with a staff of 360,000 employees and a budget of more than $186 billion.

The VA referred questions on Wilkie's status as acting secretary and the U.S. Code to the White House, which has yet to respond.

The issue of Wilkie's position as acting secretary and the potential legal hurdles was raised last week by the VoteVets advocacy group, which has joined a lawsuit against Wilkie's nomination.

"It is abundantly clear that Robert Wilkie cannot be nominated to be VA secretary, while serving as acting secretary," Will Fischer, an Iraq veteran and director of government relations at VoteVets, said in a statement.

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

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