In Wake of Scandal, VA Nominees Stuck in Senate Limbo

Key jobs at the Department of Veterans Affairs remain vacant as the Senate deals with treatment of veterans and a backlog of nominees.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (L) and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Billy House
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Michael Catalin Billy House
June 3, 2014, 6:18 p.m.

As the tur­moil over the VA scan­dal un­folds, three top posts in the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs re­main va­cant be­cause of con­gres­sion­al foot-drag­ging to­ward full Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion.

A fourth key job — the de­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al — has re­mained va­cant for nearly half a year. The White House it­self has yet to even name a nom­in­ee for that post.

There is plenty of blame be­ing tossed around.

The man with the power to set the agenda, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id of Nevada, pins it on Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans for hold­ing up more than 140 nom­in­a­tions across sev­er­al de­part­ments. He did so Tues­day when asked about the stalled nom­in­a­tion of Linda Schwartz to be as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for policy and plan­ning at the VA.

Schwartz, who was nom­in­ated last Au­gust, was re­por­ted to the full Sen­ate again in Janu­ary, after ini­tially be­ing re­por­ted in Novem­ber. As ma­jor­ity lead­er, Re­id could put her nom­in­a­tion on the floor whenev­er he chooses. In­stead, he poin­ted to the nom­in­a­tions of judges and am­bas­sad­ors, some of which are sub­ject to delays and holds by the GOP, when asked why he had not ad­vanced the Schwartz nom­in­a­tion yet.

Re­id him­self sug­ges­ted the delay is be­cause of con­tin­ued fal­lout from chan­ging the Sen­ate rules in Novem­ber to clear nom­in­a­tions with only 51 votes, rather than 60.

“The Re­pub­lic­ans are con­tinu­ing their pout and we’re un­able to get the nom­in­a­tions done,” Re­id said. “I got a let­ter last April from the sec­ret­ary of De­fense to move these along. So we’ll get to her just as quick as we can.”

The ques­tion, Re­id’s spokes­man Adam Jentleson sug­ges­ted, is not why hasn’t Re­id ac­ted, but why have Re­pub­lic­ans forced Demo­crats to eat up time through the Sen­ate’s ar­cane pro­cess rules.

“Right now, Re­pub­lic­ans have a blanket ob­jec­tion to mov­ing vir­tu­ally all nom­in­ees and for­cing us to file clo­ture on every­one,” he said in a state­ment.

Re­pub­lic­ans say they have placed no of­fi­cial holds or oth­er­wise had any hand in block­ing or delay­ing full Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion votes on Pres­id­ent Obama’s picks for the oth­er three po­s­i­tions.

Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina said he has no ob­jec­tion to Schwartz’s nom­in­a­tion and said the delay was Re­id’s fault.

“Some weeks we do noth­ing but nom­in­ees,” Burr said. “And some weeks we do noth­ing.”

Schwartz, who con­tin­ues to serve as the Con­necti­c­ut state com­mis­sion­er of vet­er­ans’ af­fairs, ex­pressed some clear antsy-ness.

“This po­s­i­tion has been va­cant since Janu­ary of 2013, and I look for­ward to ful­filling the full in­tent of my nom­in­a­tion: as­sist­ing the VA in its mis­sion of serving vet­er­ans and provid­ing the sec­ret­ary with sol­id and thought­ful coun­sel,” Schwartz said.

She is her­self a former Air Force flight nurse, who med­ic­ally re­tired in 1986 after an air­craft ac­ci­dent. In her testi­mony to the Sen­ate com­mit­tee in Novem­ber, she told law­makers that her goals are “chal­len­ging the status quo” and as­sur­ing ser­vices worthy of vet­er­ans.

But that’s just one nom­in­ee.

The oth­er two nom­in­ees — Con­stance To­bi­as as chair of the Board of Vet­er­ans’ Ap­peals, and Helen Tier­ney as the de­part­ment’s chief fin­an­cial of­ficer — are still wait­ing for the Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee to re­port their nom­in­a­tions this ses­sion.

The tim­ing is un­clear, and a spokes­man for Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Chair­man Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont did not say when to ex­pect them to head to the floor.

The pres­id­ent nom­in­ated Tier­ney in Oc­to­ber, but she has yet to see even com­mit­tee-level con­firm­a­tion. Tier­ney, who cur­rently heads the VA’s of­fice of man­age­ment, could not be reached Tues­day for com­ment.

To­bi­as, who cur­rently chairs the de­part­ment­al ap­peals board at the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, also did not re­spond through a spokes­man. To­bi­as was nom­in­ated for the VA post in Janu­ary 2012.

An­oth­er nom­in­a­tion, that of Jef­frey Mur­awsky to be un­der­sec­ret­ary for health, is also pending, but it was sub­mit­ted only this week by the White House upon the resig­na­tion of Robert Pet­zel in the wake of the VA scan­dal. The VA Com­mit­tee is still wait­ing on the ne­ces­sary pa­per­work from the White House be­fore schedul­ing a hear­ing for Mur­awsky, a Sen­ate aide said.

The Sen­ate has not delayed all VA nom­in­ees. Earli­er this year, the com­mit­tee for­war­ded Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Sloan Gib­son to be the VA’s deputy sec­ret­ary, and the Sen­ate has since con­firmed him as the de­part­ment’s No. 2 of­ficer. He be­came act­ing sec­ret­ary upon Eric Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion last week.

But the oth­er nom­in­ees await their day on the floor as the Sen­ate con­tin­ues to grapple with the fal­lout of the scan­dal over delayed and dis­hon­est treat­ment of vet­er­ans at VA med­ic­al cen­ters.

Later this week, Sanders will hold a hear­ing where he’ll roll out le­gis­la­tion aimed at ad­dress­ing the is­sues. Re­id, of­fer­ing a pre­view of the bill, said it will not be as broad as a reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill that failed earli­er this year.

Mean­while, Re­id has put an of­fer on the table for Re­pub­lic­ans to re­view: a vote on a slightly mod­i­fied ver­sion of the bi­par­tis­an House-passed VA ac­count­ab­il­ity bill, in ex­change for a vote on the Sanders le­gis­la­tion.

Re­id hadn’t heard back from Re­pub­lic­ans on the deal; his of­fers have not been well re­ceived by GOP sen­at­ors lately, though.

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