Senate Confirms Wilkie as New VA Secretary

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Senate by a vote of 86-9 confirmed Robert Wilkie on Monday as the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in a move to bring stability to a department Republicans and Democrats suggested has been in turmoil over political infighting and low morale.

The vote for Wilkie, 55, of North Carolina, an Air Force Reserve colonel with long experience at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, capped a tumultuous four months at the VA marked by ongoing leadership shuffles since President Donald Trump fired former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin in March.

In a sign of continuing questions about the direction of the VA, the Senate's action in confirming the new secretary -- normally a bipartisan event -- featured opposition votes.

The vote to confirm Shulkin last year was 100-0 to head a department serving nine million veterans annually with a budget of more than $190 billion and a workforce of more than 350,000.

The "no" votes came from eight Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and one independent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders earlier this month cast the first opposition ballot in memory for a VA secretary nominee in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee vote that sent the nomination to the floor.

Sanders at the time said he was voting more in protest of Trump than he was to Wilkie's qualifications, saying he feared that Trump and political appointees within the VA would use the recently passed VA Mission Act as a vehicle to press for the "privatization" of VA health care.

In the floor debate leading up to the vote, Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, said he is confident Wilkie can "re-establish the non-partisan approach to serving our veterans" at the VA, a possible reference to political infighting at the department.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who voted for Wilkie, was more direct. "We've got political forces at play inside the VA. That's very unfortunate," said the committee's ranking member. "When Mr. Wilkie becomes secretary, he has to see that this stops."

In his stormy departure from the VA, Shulkin said he was the victim of "subversion" by Trump political appointees within the VA and at the White House.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the committee, said, "We know Robert Wilkie is the real deal," and he will now have the opportunity "to fix the problems that we have" at the VA.

"This is the opportunity to do the changes of a lifetime," Isakson said but repeated a warning he gave Wilkie at his confirmation hearing: "You will have no excuses."

Shulkin's firing initially led Trump to nominate Rear. Adm. Ronny Jackson, his personal physician and head of the White House medical unit, to head the VA.

In an embarrassment to the administration, Jackson withdrew his name over allegations -- never proven -- that he mishandled prescriptions at the White House medical unit and may have been drunk on duty.

Following Jackson's withdrawal, Wilkie was moved over from the Pentagon to become acting secretary at the VA. In his time as acting secretary, Wilkie noted the political turmoil and low morale at the department. He said he wanted the staff "talking to each other, not at each other."

When Trump surprised him by nominating him to the full-time position, Wilkie had to step down as acting secretary to avoid violating a provision of the U.S. Code barring acting secretaries from nomination to cabinet positions.

Peter O'Rourke, a former Trump campaign worker who had been chief of staff at the VA, was moved up to the acting secretary's position. O'Rourke has since clashed with VA Inspector General Michael Missal over access to whistleblower complaint data.

The major veterans service organizations (VSOs) supported Wilkie's nomination despite initial reservations that expansion of community health care options for veterans could lead to privatization.

In a statement after the vote, Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million-member American Legion, said in a statement, "I congratulate Mr. Robert Wilkie on his Senate confirmation to be the 10th secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs."

"We look forward to working closely with Secretary Wilkie and his staff to ensure America's veterans receive the health care, education, and other benefits they have earned through their selfless service to our great nation," she added.

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

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