Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald may have only 16 months left to accomplish an overhaul of his department, but he's not looking at the calendar yet.
"I don't know that I'm going to be gone (after the 2016 presidential election)," McDonald told audience members at a Politico media forum Thursday. "And I'm not acting like I will be gone."
HIs comments came just days after the one-year anniversary of his appointment to the top VA post. His confirmation was unanimous in the Senate, and the former Procter & Gamble CEO made repairing congressional relations one of his top priorities in the ensuing months, reaching out to lawmakers in both parties in an effort to accelerate reform efforts through Capitol Hill.
"I'm not a political person," McDonald said Thursday. "My political party is veterans."
Those efforts have met with mixed success. Veterans groups have privately begun floating the idea of the next commander in chief keeping McDonald on as part of the new Cabinet, to maintain the steady improvements they've seen in the last year.
But McDonald also has come under blistering attacks from critics who say reforms aren't happening quickly enough, and accusations that he's more interested in defending the bureaucracy than fixing its problems.
The latest fight came in recent weeks as department leaders requested about $3 billion in funding transfers to cover shortfalls caused by an increase in the number of veterans using non-VA medical care programs.
Congress approved the funding patch just before the start of its August recess, but only after weeks of criticism from Republicans and Democrats that the VA hasn't been able to anticipate its fiscal needs, even with steady budget hikes over the last decade.
Conservatives also have accused McDonald of trying to undermine the new Choice Card program, approved last year to give veterans more options to seek medical care outside the VA.
McDonald brushed off those allegations.
"Last year, VA mismanagement was not getting enough veterans care. This year, mismanagement is getting too many veterans care," he quipped.
"Congress has a role to play in this. We need to work together to identify what needs to be done. But I don't have much tolerance for using veterans as political pawns."
He said strong support to help veterans and improve his department still exists in Congress, and he has repeatedly dismissed concerns of a growing rift between lawmakers and VA officials.
"I think what you're going to see is, over time, Congress is going to work with me to run this more like a business. When I came in, that's what they asked for," he said.
"I'll take the accusations, as long as we get the job done for veterans. I'm not running for anything this year."
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.