WASHINGTON — Lawmakers wrapped up the 115th Congress Wednesday night by finalizing a pair of high-profile nominees for the Department of Veterans Affairs but left a pile of other military confirmations unfinished.
In the Senate’s waning hours before the new congressional session starting Thursday, Republican and Democratic leaders worked out a deal to approve a slate of non-controversial nominations, including VA’s new assistant secretary for information technology and the new leader of the department’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.
Lawmakers also confirmed Alan Shaffer as the new deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment and two Army assistant secretaries: Casey Wardynski and Alex Beehler. The chamber also confirmed 24 new foreign ambassadors, including new U.S. officials for Yemen, Australia and Kenya.
But the closing session agreement did not include six other Defense Department nominees awaiting a vote by the full Senate, or promotions for 23 general officers. That business will now have to wait for several weeks, as the White House re-nominates each individual and their paperwork is again approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The group includes Assistant Defense Secretary nominees Veronica Daigle and Thomas McCaffery and new Principal Deputy Administrator National Nuclear Security Administration William Bookless and several service leaders.
The slow confirmation process has been a frequent target of President Donald Trump over the last two years. Republican supporters have said Democratic stalling tactics have left numerous key government posts vacant for months without reason. But Democrats have said many of the lengthy leadership gaps have been because of sluggish work by the administration, both in picking nominees and providing background information about their qualifications.
The nomination of James Gfrerer, who will oversee VA’s IT planning and policies, had been pending since September. In recent weeks, outside advocates had put additional pressure on Senators to deal with that vacancy as problems mounted with the department’s computer processing of veterans education benefits.
During a hearing last month, several senators and House members expressed concerns that needed reforms within the information technology office were going unfinished because Gfrerer’s absence.
On Thursday, they praised his belated confirmation, and that of Tamara Bonzanto to oversee the whistleblower protection office.
The 116th Congress is set to begin Thursday afternoon, with Republicans retaining control of the Senate and Democrats taking the majority in the House.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.