Veterans Affairs nominee goes before Congress

WASHINGTON D.C. - President Barack Obama's choice to lead the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department is going before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for a confirmation hearing as Congress considers a bill to help the next VA leader do his job.

Based on comments by lawmakers from both parties, VA nominee Robert McDonald appears headed to easy confirmation. The path for the veterans' bill is decidedly rockier.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assailed his Republican colleagues Monday, saying they appeared unwilling to spend the money needed to address a VA crisis involving prolonged treatment delays and falsified appointment records to cover up long wait times. The Senate approved a bill last month authorizing $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.

The measure closely tracks a bill passed a day earlier by the House. Since then, however, lawmakers have balked at the Senate measure's price tag. Congressional budget analysts project it could end up costing the government about $38 billion a year -- almost as much as the $44 billion the government now spends annually on medical care for veterans.

Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the bill's chief sponsor, "has been working for well more than a month to try to get (Republicans) to agree to something," Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. "Looks to me they're going to come back to nothing." Work by a joint House-Senate conference committee "is not being completed," Reid said.

Hours later, Sanders said the situation was not so dire.

He and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., "are working very hard to reach an agreement," Sanders said in a statement. "Given the ideological differences between the House and the Senate, these are very tough negotiations, but I still hope and believe that we can come to an agreement" before Congress adjourns for the summer early next month.

Miller has said a temporary infusion of cash is needed to fix the VA's problems over the next two years, but a long-term solution requires a fundamental change in the way the department operates.

He said late Monday he was confident a deal is within reach if the two sides "remain focused on the issues that are within the scope" of the House and Senate-passed VA reform measures.

"Had Sen. Reid bothered to talk with anyone involved in the negotiations he would have known that, but he is obviously more concerned with playing politics than constructively contributing to this process," Miller said.

As negotiations continue, McDonald is likely to receive a warm welcome Tuesday from the Senate veterans panel.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the first senator to call for former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down, said he plans to support McDonald, a onetime Procter & Gamble CEO and an Army veteran.

Moran, who met with McDonald last week, said he was "impressed by his candor, sincerity and commitment to serving our nation's veterans."

"The VA bureaucracy must be dismantled," Moran said, "and Mr. McDonald is focused and ready to take on the many challenges that lie ahead."

Sanders, for his part, also said he was impressed with McDonald.

"I believe that his years of military service will make him a very strong advocate for veterans, and that his corporate leadership gives him the experience to bring about the management changes -- in terms of accountability and transparency -- that the VA needs," Sanders said.

Underscoring the coming congressional fight over resources for the VA, Sanders added, "I also believe that he understands that if the VA is going to provide quality and timely health care for all eligible veterans, the department needs to have enough doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to meet our veterans' needs."

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