Senators Voice Support for VA Nominee
By Bill McAllister
Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., nominated to become veterans affairs secretary, faced no opposition at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, despite earlier Republican interest in using the confirmation process to delve further into a controversy over Arlington National Cemetery sites.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would support West and was "relatively optimistic" that West would be confirmed by the full Senate.
The Veterans Affairs Committee is to vote on the nomination in the coming weeks.
West, 55, has been acting VA secretary since the beginning of the year and continues to serve as Army secretary, a job he has held since 1993.
If confirmed, West will oversee a massive federal agency that serves 26 million veterans and operates hundreds of hospitals, cemeteries and benefit offices. The job has been open since the former secretary, Jesse Brown, resigned in July.
While members of the Senate committee expressed their support for West, they also used the occasion to raise concerns ranging from access to burial plots at Arlington to veterans' medical claims for tobacco-related illnesses.
There had been allegations last year that President Clinton had rewarded campaign contributors with plots at Arlington. But a General Accounting Office review found no evidence that political contributions played a role in Clinton administration burial decisions.
In nine requests for waivers allowing burial at Arlington, the military's most hallowed ground, West overruled the recommendations of a career civil servant and authorized the burials. But in each of those cases, he has said, he granted an exception because the person had made unique contributions to the country or for humanitarian reasons.
Although the Senate committee yesterday discussed proposals to restrict exceptions to burial rules, no members of the panel challenged West on the exceptions he ordered.
Specter pushed West to fight for funds that might be freed up if legislation is enacted to protect the government from medical claims filed by veterans for service-related disabilities they developed as a result of smoking.
The committee chairman said the $17 billion the administration has estimated such claims could cost over the next five years should go to the VA to improve its medical system.
West said the VA budget doesn't count on those funds, but he would argue for them if they become available.
In his opening statement to the committee, West pledged to improve the VA record on delivering benefits and meet the needs of veterans suffering from illnesses related to their service in the Persian Gulf region.
"Our health care system . . . must be the finest. We must become a world-class health care provider," West said.
The only discontent with West seemingly has come from Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), who is not on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Enzi circulated a letter Monday to his Senate colleagues expressing concern about the nomination because of sexual harassment charges within the Army under West's tenure and West's support for "genderless" basic training policies.
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