Senate lawmakers approved Denis McDonough as the next Veterans Affairs secretary on Monday, making him only the second non-veteran ever confirmed to lead the department.
McDonough, who served as White House Chief of Staff under former President Barack Obama, was tapped by President Joe Biden to lead the massive veterans agency in a bid to streamline operations and reduce bureaucracy.
“I understand how to untangle and solve large, complex challenges, both across and within large agencies,” he told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing last month.
“I have seen firsthand that when our government is at its best, it can help serve the American people — including our veterans — and allow them to live in security and dignity.”
McDonough received unanimous support from members of the committee following that appearance. His full chamber vote wasn’t as unified, but he was still easily confirmed by a 87-7 margin.
The senators who voted against McDonough were all Republicans. None had publicly indicated a reason for their opposition, although several have voted against most or all of Biden’s Cabinet nominees thus far.
“Under President Obama, Mr. McDonough was a member of the National Security Council and the White House Chief of Staff. He was a regular face at Walter Reed and a frequent visitor of our troops deployed abroad,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., moments before the Senate vote.
“The VA has one of the most sacred missions of all our agencies ... but the task of achieving that mission is one of organization, institutional know-how, and administrative troubleshooting. I am confident that Mr. McDonough’s decades of experience at the highest levels of government make him well-qualified to take on the job.”
McDonough is expected to be sworn in officially to his new role as early as Tuesday. He told senators last month that his top priority will be “getting our veterans through this pandemic.” More than 210,000 VA patients have tested positive for coronavirus in the last 11 months, and more than 9,300 have died from complications related to the virus.
Department officials announced earlier this week they had passed 1 million vaccine doses since mid-December, but have also warned it could be months before they vaccinate the more than 7 million department employees and veteran patients they expected to come to VA for the treatment.
McDonough also listed his top priorities as reducing veterans suicides and homelessness, improving services for transitioning service members and veteran caregivers, and “ensuring that the VA welcomes all our veterans, including women veterans, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans.”
He takes over a department with more than 400,000 employees and a budget of $243 billion, larger than any of the individual military services.
“This won’t be easy,” McDonough acknowledged in his confirmation hearing. “The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges … Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans. I promise to fight every single day to ensure that our veterans have the access to the world-class, compassionate care they have earned.”
Veterans groups initially reacted with surprise at the selection of McDonough to oversee the veterans department, especially given his lack of personal military experience. However, most advocates have dropped those concerns in recent weeks as McDonough has met with them to discuss his plans and priorities.
Biden officials have not yet announced nominees for other top leadership posts at VA. One of the most pressing vacancies will be the department’s under secretary for health, which has not had a Senate-confirmed appointee since early 2017, before President Donald Trump’s term in office.
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.