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Robert Wilkie, shown here at his Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on June 27, 2018, has been confirmed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Robert Wilkie, shown here at his Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on June 27, 2018, has been confirmed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday night confirmed Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, marking the latest chapter for the federal government's second-largest agency, which is embroiled in controversy, volatility and lingering vacancies.

Wilkie, 55, has served as the Defense Department undersecretary of personnel and readiness and was considered a safe choice for the job after President Donald Trump dismissed previous VA Secretary David Shulkin earlier this year and tried to replace him with Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, a White House doctor who quickly became caught up in controversy and flamed out as a candidate for the job.

As a result, the massive agency has been without a secretary since March 28, when Trump fired Shulkin barely a year after a nearly unanimous Senate confirmed him for the job.

"We have the chance to fix the problems that we've had and make [the VA] better," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said ahead of Monday night’s vote. “We owe it to our veterans no less than the best secretary...Robert Wilkie.”

The Senate confirmed Wilkie’s nomination with a 86 to 9 vote, with only Democrats opposing him. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the only senator to vote against Wilkie when he easily won unanimous approval July 10 from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Since the VA became a Cabinet-level department in 1989, there have been nine secretaries. All of them were unanimously approved by the Senate. That changed Monday after Sanders along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., voted against Wilkie.

Five senators were not present Monday evening and did not vote: Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Richard Burr, R-N.C., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., John Kennedy, R-La., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

During Wilkie’s confirmation hearing, Sanders expressed concerns that Trump was attempting to erode VA resources slowly and send more money into the private sector.

In response, Wilkie said he believed the VA should be central to veterans’ health care.

Wilkie has decades of military policymaking experience on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and White House, but the new VA secretary must lead an agency in the midst of turbulent times marked by turnover and instability while guiding health care for the U.S. veteran population. The agency is comprised of more than 375,000 workers and has an annual budget of nearly $200 billion.

“We still have much work ahead of us as we strive to ensure our nation’s veterans receive the benefits and care they deserve, and I know we will work together to continue to deliver on the promises this country has made to the men and women who served,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Congress recently passed the VA Mission Act, a $52 billion package of reforms that need to be carried out during the next year. The agency is also implementing changes to veterans’ education benefits and working on a multibillion-dollar project to overhaul its electronic health record.

Since Shulkin was fired, Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman retired and several health officials left the VA, as did the agency’s chief information officer. No one has been nominated yet to lead the VA’s vast health care system.

Despite reports of controversial travel and other concerns by Shulkin, several veterans groups stood by the former VA secretary for a number of efforts, including his opposition to privatizing the agency. On Monday, Wilkie's confirmation vote was a relief for at least one of those groups.

“On behalf of the two million members of the American Legion, I congratulate Mr. Robert Wilkie on his Senate confirmation to be the tenth secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs," said Denise Rohan, national commander for the American Legion, a nearly 100-year-old organization. "We look forward to working closely with Secretary Wilkie and his staff to ensure America’s veterans receive the health care, education, and other benefits they have earned through their selfless service to our great nation.”

Only months after Shulkin's February 2017 Senate confirmation, he began to face questions about expenditures on a July trip to Europe in which the VA secretary took in a Wimbledon tennis match and other sightseeing with his wife Merle Bari. By February 2018, Shulkin — a physician who was the first person to run the VA without military experience -- faced reports from the VA inspector general of his "misuse of VA resources" during the trip, infighting among his staff and turnover at the highest levels of the agency.

In March, Trump announced plans to nominate Jackson as the new VA secretary.

"I am pleased to announce that I intend to nominate highly respected Admiral Ronny L. Jackson, MD, as the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs," Trump tweeted March 28. "In the interim, Hon. Robert Wilkie of DOD will serve as Acting Secretary. I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin's service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!”

Jackson, however, met his own rash of controversy, as reports alleged he issued unnecessary prescriptions and drank alcohol during travel. Jackson denied the reports, though he was pressured to withdraw from his nomination to lead the VA. Jackson now faces an investigation by the Defense Department Office of Inspector General.

Wilkie led the VA as acting secretary for two months until he was officially nominated for the position on a full-time basis. Since May, Peter O’Rourke served as acting secretary for the agency, which has been without a permanent leader for nearly four months.

Previously, the White House, through Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Wilkie had “stellar qualifications” for the job and had asked the Senate to confirm him quickly. On Monday, the White House issued a statement from the president lauding the vote.

"I applaud the United States Senate for confirming Robert Wilkie as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Wilkie has dedicated his life to serving his country with honor and pride. He has displayed great patriotism and a commitment to supporting and empowering America’s armed forces and veterans," Trump said in a prepared statement. "Under his leadership, I have no doubt that the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to make strides in honoring and protecting the heroic men and women who have served our nation with distinction.”

After a confirmation hearing June 27, most senators on the VA committee seemed willing to approve his nomination despite a Washington Post report that criticized him for embracing and defending divisive cultural issues.

Isakson, the VA committee chairman, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued their official support for Wilkie on June 28.

"We know Robert Wilkie is the real deal," Isakson said Monday. "We know the things we have gone through with some of the previous appointees and some of the problems at the VA now have a chance to be overridden and solved and we step forward on a new day for the VA. We no longer want somebody who will make excuses for the VA, we want somebody who is going to be make a difference.” Twitter: @cgrisales


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