Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough is sworn in during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough is sworn in during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool )

WASHINGTON – Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the Republican leader of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, announced his support Wednesday for Denis McDonough to become the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Moran, along with other Republican senators, voiced approval near the end of McDonough’s confirmation hearing, signaling an easy path to confirmation. The committee is expected to vote on his nomination Tuesday, and it would then go to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I just wanted you to know – based upon what you have said – that I will vote for your confirmation, and I will ask my Republican colleagues to do the same,” Moran said. “Your commitment is evident to me. We wish you well in this endeavor.”

If confirmed by the Senate, McDonough will take the helm of the second-largest federal agency, which operates America’s largest health care system.

Earlier in the hearing, Moran pressed McDonough about whether he and President Joe Biden intended to restrict veterans’ eligibility to receive health care from private doctors. The issue of how involved private-sector doctors should be in veterans’ health care has long been a subject of debate.

Moran said he was concerned about the new administration going against what Congress intended with the VA Mission Act, a bipartisan measure intended to expand veterans’ access to private doctors. Congress passed the bill in 2019, and the VA is still implementing it.

McDonough responded that he would implement the legislation “fully in consultation” with Congress and create a network of community care providers to treat veterans. Private-sector care is especially important for veterans in rural areas, he said.

“Community care will continue to be a key part of how the department cares for our veterans, full stop,” McDonough said.

Later in the hearing, he addressed opposite concerns from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who worried that veterans’ care could be completely outsourced to the private sector. Instead, McDonough said he and Biden would work to strike a balance.

“I do not support privatization,” McDonough said.

With every decision he makes at the VA, including those regarding community care, McDonough said he would ask himself, “Are the decisions we’re taking increasing access for veterans, and are they improving outcomes for veterans?”

Biden nominated McDonough on Dec. 10. He served as principal deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama and later took the job as Obama’s chief of staff. McDonough began working with Obama in 2007 as the then-senator’s senior foreign policy adviser. Before working for Obama, McDonough held staff positions in the House and Senate.

McDonough, 51, has faced some criticism for his lack of military service. If confirmed, he would become only the second VA secretary to not be a veteran. He acknowledged this Wednesday and instead touted his government experience as the biggest benefit he brings to the job.

“I’m a fighter, and I’m relentless,” McDonough said. “I know and understand the federal government. I can unstick problems inside agencies, and especially at an agency as big as the VA, that’s important. I will deliver if I’m confirmed as secretary.”

In addition to private-sector care, senators asked McDonough how he would handle a range of issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and veteran suicide.

In his opening statement, McDonough named “getting our veterans through this pandemic” as his top priority. Regarding Biden’s plan to administer 100 million vaccines within 100 days, McDonough said he would advocate for veterans to receive them.

“I will demand a seat at the table, and I will be a staunch and fierce advocate for veterans getting access to care, treatment and vaccines,” he said.

As of Wednesday, coronavirus death rates at the VA were the highest they have ever been. More than 8,700 veterans and 120 VA workers have died of the virus – nearly 2,000 in the previous three weeks.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the new chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, gave McDonough one clear task if confirmed as secretary: “Denis, your chief responsibility during this unprecedented time will be to save as many lives as possible,” he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked McDonough about the relatively new problem of online bots targeting veterans with false information. Blumenthal said the result of the misinformation campaigns was seen Jan. 6, when many veterans joined the mob that stormed the Capitol.

McDonough vowed to work with other government agencies to focus on the problem.

“It’s as important an assignment to protect our democracy as any,” he said. “I could see a variety of opportunities for the VA to be an important actor in those efforts to protect veterans and highlight the threats.”

Throughout the hearing, McDonough faced a mostly supportive panel of senators. Sanders said McDonough “stands the chance of being a really, really great secretary.” Sens. Kevin Kramer, R-N.D., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said McDonough had their vote, too.

“I know how much you care,” Manchin said. “Now it’s time to show the rest of the world.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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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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