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No guarantee of quick Senate approval of VA secretary pick

WASHINGTON — Debate over the White House nomination of former Procter & Gamble president and CEO Bob McDonald to head the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs is likely to take weeks and will be shadowed by past presidential VA appointments left to languish in the Senate.

Neither a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs or a full chamber floor vote will happen until lawmakers return from leave after the Fourth of July weekend. The chamber will then have four weeks — a legislative dash — to vote up or down on the VA secretary nomination before a monthlong recess in August, or push the decision into the fall.

Three other VA leadership appointments by the White House have languished on the Hill without a confirmation vote, one for more than a year.

President Barack Obama on Monday urged a quick confirmation of McDonald, 61, who graduated in the top of his class at West Point and spent over three decades at Ohio-based consumer goods giant P&G. Senate lawmakers have overwhelmingly agreed the nationwide VA health care system must be fixed after revelations of monthslong patient waits, systemic scheduling abuses and lack of accountability among management.

Congress is finalizing a VA reform package hammered out since the department scandal broke in late April. A key to the reform effort will be filling the secretary position, which oversees 340,000 employees and more than 1,700 facilities that serve about 9 million veterans, according to the Obama administration.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki stepped down May 30 following widespread public outrage over the department’s deep dysfunction.

McDonald is expected to meet next week with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. In a released statement Sunday, Sanders said he wants to talk with McDonald about improved transparency and accountability as well as increasing the number of doctors and nurses at the VA.

A Sanders staff member said Tuesday that meetings with senators are customary before consideration, but a veterans’ affairs committee hearing is likely to be scheduled only after McDonald files a formal nominee questionnaire with the Senate.

For now, it is too early in the process to know when a committee hearing might be called, the staff member said. Such hearings are often scheduled at least a week in advance.

The White House declined to comment Tuesday on when a McDonald questionnaire, akin to a formal nomination request, may be filed in the Senate.

Meanwhile, a full Senate vote on the McDonald nomination could theoretically be put to the floor quickly if a majority of members approve, according to Senate bylaws. But dozens of Obama administration nominees have been blocked by political opposition in the chamber, and the VA has not been immune despite its raft of problems.

Obama said Monday the Senate is holding up nominations for Helen Tierney as the VA chief financial officer, Linda Schwartz as assistant secretary for policy and Constance Tobias as the head of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

“They have all been waiting and waiting and waiting for a vote — in Constance’s case, for more than a year,” he said.

The three nominees are only part of the department’s leadership issues as it struggles to rein in a widening crisis. Nine of its 16 top leadership positions are being temporarily filled until Obama appointees are approved.

Amid a landslide of health care scandals in recent weeks, management has been pinpointed as a key trouble area at VA. A damning report ordered by Obama and released Friday found the VA is suffers from “significant and chronic system failures” as well as a “corrosive culture.”

As secretary, McDonald would bring past military service as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division and experience running one of the country’s biggest corporations.

During 33 years at P&G, he managed the Tide detergent brand and was president of global fabric before being promoted to president and chief executive in 2009. The corporation’s stock price grew by 60 percent under his leadership but he left in 2013 after investor dissatisfaction over earnings.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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