Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester will take over as ranking member of the chamber's Veterans Affairs committee next year, positioning him as a top political foil to President-elect Donald Trump's plans for VA reform.

The move was announced Wednesday as part of Senate Democrat's leadership shake-up. Tester replaces Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who had served in the role for the past two years.

Tester, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee dealing with the VA budget, has been on the Veterans Affairs committee since 2007 and been a frequent critic of efforts to "privatize" the department.

He said Wednesday he thinks that ongoing fight will be a top focus in working with the next White House administration.

"The big challenge is who will [the Trump administration] put in for VA secretary, and does that person want to privatize VA or do they want to build it," he said. "Veterans from Montana tell me they have frustrations getting in the door, but once they do it's the best damn health care.

"So, we need to build on our successes, and we will."

Throughout the campaign, Trump has promised to expand outside health care options for veterans facing long wait times or significant travel for VA appointments, but has also vowed he will not privatize existing department operations.

Tester said he is hopeful lawmakers can pass the pending Veterans First Act in the lame duck session next month, saying that legislation helps strike a balance between expanding the department’s outside care programs and strengthening VA services.

But that measure faces an uncertain future. Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he hopes parts of the comprehensive veterans reform legislation can be approved before the end of the year, but he does not expect the full measure to get a vote.

House lawmakers have objected to the plan, saying it falls short of their goals for new accountability measures and includes too many new, costly programs. Some veterans groups have also objected to the measure because it pulls some money from GI Bill funds to other accounts.

Isakson praised Tester’s promotion to ranking member, calling him a colleague who has worked closely with him on numerous issues.

With the change, Isakson will become the only one of the "big four" congressional VA committee leaders to remain in place in next year. In the House Armed Services Committee, chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is retiring, and ranking member Rep. Corrine Brown, R-Fla., lost her bid for re-election.


Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com

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