Just hours before a House vote on new Veterans Affairs reform legislation, White House officials threatened a veto of the measure over concerns that it would undermine federal workers' rights by making it too easy to fire them.
In a statement Tuesday evening, administration officials said they strongly oppose the measure because it would eliminate safeguards put in place to prevent unfair dismissals.
"The bill could have a significant impact on VA's ability to retain and recruit qualified professionals and may result in a loss of qualified and capable staff to other government agencies or the private sector," the statement said.
The concerns echo those raised by Democrats on the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees, who all opposed the measure as it advanced through their respective panels.
But Republicans in both chambers have called the bill a necessary tool to help clean up the VA workforce, which has seen no significant increase in firings in the wake of several scandals involving record manipulation, budgeting errors and patient wait time increases.
The measure would shorten the appeals process time for fired or demoted employees and put strict limits on how long workers could be put on paid suspensions for infractions.
It also includes language that would allow VA officials to pull back some pension benefits of fired employees and authorizes the Government Accountability Office to study "the amount of time spent by VA employees carrying out labor organizing activities."
The House is expected to pass the measure as early as Wednesday afternoon, with GOP leaders there rallying members in support of the idea.
The Senate is not expected to take up the legislation before its August recess, but prominent Republicans in that chamber have also voiced strong support for the proposal.
The move comes one year after another sweeping VA reform bill was approved by Congress. That included language to ease the firing of senior executives connected to department scandals or found lacking in their effectiveness.
But only a few administrators have been dismissed under the law, with VA officials insisting that the congressional intervention has done little to simplify or speed up the employment appeals process.
In advance of the House vote, leaders from the Senior Executives Association — which has publicly opposed similar workforce rule changes in the past — labeled the legislation a series of unneeded and unfair changes "designed to promote more anti-worker sentiment and further demoralize the federal workforce."
White House officials noted that current law already allows dismissal of VA employees (and other federal workers) for a variety of reasons, minimizing the need for the new legislation. But critics have charged that VA leaders aren't doing that, instead allowing problem employees to transfer or retire without consequence.
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.