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The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo.

The Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON — Republicans on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs attempted Wednesday to derail legislation that would give pay raises to Department of Veterans Affairs health care workers, arguing the agency shouldn’t receive more funds to recruit or retain employees until it scraps its vaccine mandate.

The House committee approved the VA RAISE Act, voting along party lines to increase the salary limitations on VA nurses and physician assistants. VA Secretary Denis McDonough has urged Congress to approve the bill to help the department retain health care staff and recruit candidates for thousands of vacancies.

Before the vote, Republican members argued against the legislation and tried to add an amendment that would force the VA to do away with its mandate that employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The committee opposed the amendment, with Democrats voting to throw it out.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee, accused Republicans of attempting to undermine the bill with partisan gamesmanship and disinformation.

“This amendment is a political stunt that injects extreme ideological views into the very serious work of this committee,” he said. “We are here today dealing with serious legislation. … I have no patience for this type of stunt.”

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, introduced the amendment to end the VA’s vaccine mandate. He claimed the VA wouldn’t need more funding to hire workers if it wasn’t planning to fire those employees who refused to be vaccinated.

“Why is the VA going to proceed with continuing to have these vaccine mandates that would require a lot of our health care workers be removed, and then come back and say we need a lot more money to hire more people?” Roy asked.

As of Wednesday, the VA had not fired any employees because of the vaccine mandate. About 10% of VA employees have requested exemptions to the mandate, and McDonough has said the department would accept those requests without question in most cases.

The VA might only deny exemption requests in instances where there aren’t enough vaccinated health care workers to treat veterans in areas such as spinal cord injury facilities or community living centers, McDonough said.

Roy and Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the committee, also speculated about the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. Bost insisted the amendment wasn’t a political move.

“I am concerned about how the employees will be treated in the VA based on their personal choices and about the science,” Bost said.

Takano accused Roy and Bost of using the issue of personal choice to disguise anti-vaccination sentiments.

“I’ll just say how unfortunate it is that the ranking member and Representative Roy have chosen to waste precious time indulging in extreme libertarian fantasies and vaccine skepticism couched as an attempt to protect individual rights,” he said.

The bill, which passed through the committee after the debate Wednesday, will next go to the House floor.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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