Democratic lawmakers demanded clarity Wednesday on “who’s calling the shots” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, lamenting reports of VA Secretary David Shulkin’s impending ouster and attacking the Trump administration for allowing its “dysfunction” to infect the embattled agency.
During a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees on veterans’ affairs, Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), the panel’s top Democrat, expressed anger that the White House hadn’t consulted lawmakers about its plans.
“We woke up this morning, and we don’t know by the end of today who our VA secretary will be,” the congressman said, leaning into the table and speaking loudly. “I don’t expect, but would have certainly appreciated, some consultation since we have worked on these issues for decades. We need stability in the VA, in the VA culture . . . this is our VA.”
“You can come here and hold us accountable,” he added, alluding to the representatives from several veterans advocacy groups who went to Capitol Hill to discuss their legislative priorities. “It’s harder to have that down at Pennsylvania avenue.”
Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover in President Trump’s Cabinet, has been battling an internal insurgency led by conservative forces in the administration who want to expand veterans’ health care options outside the department.
His tenure has also been bruised by recent investigations into his travel to Europe with his wife.
Trump is telling aides that he might replace Shulkin as part of a broader shake-up of his Cabinet, three advisers to the president told The Post. Senior White House officials said Shulkin could be forced out within days.
Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the drama around reports that Shulkin’s own staff was trying to sabotage him was “hampering reforms for the agency,” which serves 9 million former troops including their health care, home loans and the benefits.
“The president has to decide if he is going to back Shulkin to do his job or if he is going to go with political interests,” he said. “… We need to know who’s calling the shots. We have been at war for too long.”
Tester said that some of the initiatives to overhaul VA have been hindered for months and that “this is very disturbing to me because we send young men and women off to war and they come back changed. But we have an obligation to take care of you if you have changed.”
Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the House VA committee chairman, while not criticizing the president, did express support for Shulkin. “I think Dr. Shulkin has done a bang-up job. We certainly, on both sides of the aisle, have worked with him very well,” Roe said. “I would certainly hate to see him leave that position. We have a great working relationship.”
A physician and former hospital executive who won unanimous confirmation by the Senate last year, Shulkin, 58, has so far been able to hold onto his job. And Trump as recently as this summer told him that he would never hear Trump’s old reality-show catchphrase, “You’re fired.”
Stories were circulating Tuesday that Trump was considering moving Energy Secretary Rick Perry over to VA. But the former Texas governor, speaking after a Senate hearing, indicated no job swap was imminent.
“I am energy secretary from now until the foreseeable future. Happily,” Perry said, according to the Associated Press.
Whoever steps into his job is beset by challenges, including an alarming veteran suicide rate of 20 a day; overuse of opiates; a shortage of doctors and nurses, and a backlog in disability claims that has shifted in recent years from initial applications to appeals.
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