WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers on Monday afternoon are expected to confirm Robert Wilkie as the next Veterans Affairs Secretary, with limited but still noteworthy opposition from critics of President Donald Trump.
Wilkie, 55, is the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and Trump’s second pick to replace former VA Secretary David Shulkin, fired via Twitter in March after fighting with political operatives within the administration.
Wilkie earned high praise from most members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee following his confirmation hearings last month, including several Democrats. On Thursday, just before Senate leaders announced the Monday vote, committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called him “eminently qualified” to take over the post.
“Once confirmed, I stand ready as chairman to work with him in the implementation of the major reforms passed by Congress in recent months,” he said in a statement. “It is of utmost importance that any policy changes that impact the future of the department be made by a confirmed VA secretary who can be held accountable by Congress and the American people.”
Improving veterans' access to health care would be one of his biggest priorities, Robert Wilkie said.
That has become in issue in recent weeks, as acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke has sparred with other senior VA officials, the VA inspector general and federal union leaders over a host of personnel changes.
Lawmakers have said they hope Wilkie, a longtime bureaucrat and Capitol Hill aide, can bring stability to the department in the wake of those problems.
But unlike Shulkin, who was confirmed by a 100-0 vote in February 2017, Wilkie is not expected to receive unanimous support. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has also said he will vote against the nominee over concerns that President Donald Trump’s policies — and personnel picks — are moving towards privatizing VA health care operations.
Since VA became a Cabinet-level agency 30 years ago, no senator has ever voted against a president’s nominee for the top department post, a record that underscores the normally bipartisan nature of the job.
It’s unclear how many other senators may join Sanders in his protest vote. Sanders has said he does not have specific issues with Wilkie, is an Air Force Reserve colonel who was approved to his current Pentagon position last fall without any opposition.
Wilkie has also served in the Navy Reserve and frequently speaks about growing up as the son of an Army artillery commander. During his confirmation hearing, Wilkie told lawmakers about his father’s serious injury in the Vietnam War.
“When he came home after almost a year in Army hospitals, he weighed less than half of what he did when he left,” he said. “I watched the agonizing recovery, and that experience was on my mind when I was asked to come to VA.”
Wilkie has vowed to improve customer service policies at VA, as well as improve veterans health care options, reduce the backlog of disability claims, and reform the department’s human resources systems.
The Senate vote is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.