Political News

Top VA panel Democrat on new secretary pick: 'At this moment in time, I like him'

Posted May 22, 2018 1:15 p.m. EDT

— Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Tuesday that President Donald Trump's pick to lead the VA, Robert Wilkie, is a "strong choice."

Tester said he needs to spend time with Wilkie and interview him properly, but he has an overall positive impression.

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

The committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, said he and Tester intend to have a committee meeting when the Senate returns from the Memorial Day weeklong recess. "We will do our due diligence as we always do," he added.

"As that process unfolds, we will determine if he is a confirmable person, but at this moment in time, I like him," Tester told CNN. He added that he had not spoken to the President, who was sharply critical of the way Tester handled Trump's previous nominee for this position, about Wilkie's pick.

Tester's comments on Wilkie come nearly a month after Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson withdrew his name for consideration for the position following allegations of improper behavior leveled against him. Tester was among the most vocal critics of Jackson in the Senate.

There was also a question about the US code that indicates that Wilkie cannot be both acting secretary and the nominee for the head of a government agency. Isakson said there have been acting secretaries who have stayed, and there have been acting secretaries who have been asked to leave until they were confirmed. He said he did not know what position the White House or the attorney general's office has taken, but expected to know in a few days. "It's been done both ways historically," he said.

Isakson and Tester both said they are hoping to get a vote on the VA Mission Act this week -- which includes $5.2 billion for the VA Choice program that funds private care -- ahead of Memorial Day, making the point that passing legislation to protect veterans is the right way to honor them.

The estimated cost of the VA Mission Act is $55 billion. The two lawmakers defended the bill, saying there have been "misrepresentations" about it due to the "break in leadership" at the VA. Iskason said it's "false to assume this is a bad idea."

The House voted last week to pass its version of the bill. There has been a long-simmering debate about the extent to which veterans obtain care in the private sector. Many veterans groups say they don't want to see too many resources shifted outside the VA, a move they say would fundamentally bleed the health system dry.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who's also a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, joined Isakson and Tester to add some anecdotes, one about a constituent who lived a mile from a VA clinic but had to drive 100 miles in Nevada to receive the care they needed.

"If the VA can't provide the health care, then absolutely they go out," Tester said.