Tensions over the stalled confirmation of a key Veterans Affairs official led to an angry exchange on the Senate floor Wednesday, with a top Democratic lawmaker accusing a Republican colleague of “turning his back on America’s veterans.”
At issue is the pending nomination of Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who was tapped by the White House in March to serve as VA’s undersecretary for health.
Elnahal, who currently serves as chief executive officer of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last month, and sailed through a committee vote advancing him for the VA leadership post.
The top VA medical job hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed appointee since January 2017, when Dr. David Shulkin left the post to take over the VA secretary position. Since then, multiple commissions to find a replacement have been established and dissolved without a replacement, until Elnahal.
But, when Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., took to the Senate floor Wednesday in an attempt to fast track Elnahal’s confirmation, the move was blocked by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott.
Scott objected because of President Joe Biden’s lack of ability to “appoint qualified individuals to serve in important roles.”
Scott offered no specific objection to Elnahal. The chamber frequently approves nominations without a full roll call vote, as was the case when Adm. Linda Fagan was confirmed to take over as the next commandant of the Coast Guard two weeks ago.
Tester immediately blasted Scott’s move.
“This individual has been president and CEO of University Hospital in New Jersey. He has been a health commissioner. Why do you think that makes him unqualified?” he shouted at Scott.
“This is obstruction at the worst, because this stops our veterans from getting the health care that they need. You want to talk about why the American people think the United States Senate is dysfunctional? The senator from Florida can look in the mirror,” Tester added.
The surprisingly direct exchange ended with Tester yelling that Scott should not “walk into Memorial Day services and talk about what a great friend he is to veterans, because he is not.”
The parliamentary drama doesn’t end Elnahal’s nomination, but likely delays it for several more weeks.
Senate leaders typically try to advance non-controversial nominees in the days before a legislative break.
Wednesday’s block means the Senate will enter its week-long Memorial Day recess without taking a full chamber vote on the post, pushing it to sometime in June.
VA officials have said they are maintaining health care operations and planning without a confirmed undersecretary, but need to fill the post as soon as possible to improve planning and management of the sprawling department medical system.
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.