Robert L. Wilkie won confirmation Monday to be the new secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs — but also became the first department secretary in history not to clear the Senate unanimously.
He was cleared on an 86-9 vote, with all the opposition coming from the Democratic Caucus, and particularly those building up their anti-Trump credentials with an eye toward a 2020 presidential bid.
Mr. Wilkie, though officially the under secretary for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, has been acting chief of the VA since late March and most lawmakers said he was the obvious choice.
“I think Robert Wilkie is the right man for the job,” said Sen. Jon Tester, ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
He takes control of a department still reeling in the aftermath of Obama-era reports of mismanagement, including secret wait lists that saw veterans die while stuck waiting for care.
In the wake of the scandal Congress has pushed the VA to be more open to allowing veterans to use non-VA clinics for care — though Republicans are pushing for faster action on that front, while Democrats are resisting what they see as a drift toward privatization of the $200 billion, 366,000-employee department.
Mr. Wilkie replaces David Shulkin, who had been the No. 2 official at the VA under President Obama, and who got a promotion to the top job under President Trump.
He enjoyed praise from Mr. Trump early in his tenure but was ousted earlier in March after he faced accusations of ethics lapses such as using his security detail for personal tasks.
Mr. Shulkin also had been under fire from conservatives who felt he wasn’t a strong enough supporter of the Choice Act, which established the private care alternative in the wake of the wait-list scandal.
Mr. Trump had initially tapped his personal doctor at the White House, Adm. Ronnie Jackson, to be the VA secretary, but Dr. Jackson’s nomination faltered amid opposition from Democrats, some Republicans and veterans groups who said he lacked management experience.
Those groups were more enamored of Mr. Wilkie, who is the son of an Army veteran and who still serves in the Air Force Reserve, along with extensive experience spanning the Pentagon, Congress and the National Security Council.
“Since being named acting secretary in March, Robert Wilkie has reached out to veteran service organizations and worked closely with the White House to learn and address the challenging issues faced by the VA,” said AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly. “His Senate confirmation today means that the nation’s 20 million veterans can regain a VA that has the consistency of leadership and vision that taking proper care of our nation’s veterans requires.”
Mr. Trump thanked senators for the vote, calling Mr. Wilkie a lifelong public servant.
Under his leadership, I have no doubt that the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to make strides in honoring and protecting the heroic men and women who have served our nation with distinction,” the president said in a statement.
Opponents of Mr. Wilkie said he had a controversial background that included defending his one-time boss, the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.
“The VA needs a leader who will fight for all veterans and push back against attempts to privatize care. I don’t think Robert Wilkie is that leader, and I cannot support his nomination,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the Democrats who voted against him.
Other opponents were Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Bernard Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden.
Mr. Wilkie’s backers in the Senate said they expect him to continue clearing out problem employees, to work on stemming veteran suicides and to keep
“I told Robert, you have no excuses,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Mr. Isakson, though, also said it’s time for the press to update the storyline on the VA, complaining that reporters are still rehashing years-old audits that found problems at the massive department.
He said the VA has come a long way since then, and most veterans’ needs are being met better and faster than ever.
“We’ve got to report the good news as well as the tough news,” he said.