Veterans

Walz makes early bid for House Veterans' Affairs leadership post

Democrats on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee are heading into the summer recess with a brewing leadership fight for the fall and a host of questions about the makeup of their panel next year.

On Wednesday, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., sent a letter to his fellow Democrats asking for their support to serve as ranking member of the committee next year, when the new Congress convenes. Walz made a similar unsuccessful bid in late 2014, before the 114th Congress was seated.

But the leadership landscape on the committee has changed dramatically in just the last few weeks. Earlier this month, ranking member Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., was indicted in an alleged charity fraud scheme and forced to step down temporarily from the post. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has assumed the post for now.

When and if Brown will resume the role remains unclear. A preliminary hearing on the charges is scheduled before the end of the month, but a trial date could be months away. Meanwhile, she faces a difficult re-election fight in a newly drawn northern Florida district.

Walz had challenged Brown in 2014, saying that his status as a retired command sergeant major in the Army National Guard gave him specific insight into veterans' health and benefits issues. He has also received significant support from veterans groups

Walz made no reference to Brown's legal problems is his letter, instead noting that "I am the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress" and "I possess the passion, knowledge and legislative experience necessary to be the lead Democratic voice on the Veterans' Affairs Committee."

He also listed numerous problems facing President Barack Obama's Department of Veterans Affairs, including the continued benefits backlog and mental health care.

"Our VA system is in crisis," he wrote, "and now, more than ever, Democrats need a strong, respected voice to address these problems head on and build the coalition required to get veterans and their families the care they deserve."

How Walz's early leadership bid will affect the minority party's operations for the rest of 2016 remains to be seen. Josh Weisz, spokesman for Takano, said despite the abrupt change, Democrats will stay focused on their agenda throughout the fall.

"(We) will press forward with their efforts on all fronts: ensuring the VA is accountable without violating employees' due process rights, improving the VA health system without privatization, strengthening the mental health care veterans receive, and providing veterans the support they need to find a rewarding career," he said. "These goals are too important to put on hold."

Leadership elections for both parties will take place after the fall elections.

As Democrats sort out their situation with the panel, House Republicans will be looking for a new leader on the committee as well. Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., announced his retirement from Congress earlier this year.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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