Senate lawmakers on Wednesday confirmed James Byrne for the second-highest post at the Department of Veterans Affairs, officially filling a key leadership vacancy after an absence of more than a year.
Byrne, a former Marine infantry officer who previously served as VA’s general counsel, was approved for the post by a 81-11 vote. His nomination has been pending since April, but he has been serving in the post as acting director since August 2018.
A day earlier, speaking on behalf of the nomination, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., acknowledged that Byrne “has ruffled feathers among some here” in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers on implementation of the VA Mission Act and other department priorities. But said he still supported the acting deputy for the permanent job.
“In the end, I think he will do the right thing and that we can hold him accountable,” Tester said. “It is critically important we get these folks confirmed so we can hold them accountable and get them in front of our committee.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., praised Byrne as a key leader in recent reforms at the sprawling veterans bureaucracy.
“The VA is working,” Isakson said. “We have some problems, but we have a lot fewer than we used to have. A lot of that is because of James Byrne. He has been working already, and we need to make him permanent.”
Byrne is a Naval Academy graduate and a former international narcotics prosecutor at the Department of Justice. He also previously worked as an investigator with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction before leaving government to work for the Lockheed Martin Corporation for several years.
During his confirmation hearing, Byrne praised reform efforts in the department in recent years, saying he is “extremely bullish” on the department’s future.
The VA deputy secretary post has been open since Thomas Bowman retired from the job in June 2018. Bowman had been passed over for the acting VA secretary job twice after the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin, and reportedly had fought with White House operatives on a host of department policy issues.
With Byrne’s confirmation, the highest ranking vacancy at the department becomes VA’s undersecretary for health post. No one has been nominated for that position since Shulkin stepped down from the post after being confirmed as secretary in the second month of Trump’s presidency.