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Reid Signals Quick Action as Appropriators Back VA Firing Authority

Under the VA bill, Shinseki would have authority to fire senior personnel. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Under the VA bill, Shinseki would have authority to fire senior personnel. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 2 p.m. | Senate Appropriators have signaled bipartisan support for granting the secretary of Veterans Affairs authority to terminate senior personnel for poor performance, and the Senate’s top Democrat is open to it, as well.  

On a voice vote, committee members added language to the fiscal 2015 Military Construction-VA spending bill, echoing a measure the House passed Wednesday with 390 votes in the wake of the Veterans Affairs scandal.  

Shortly thereafter, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters he expected quick action.  

“I think what the House has done is not unreasonable, as far as I understand, but again, Chairman Sanders has done a remarkably good job as chairman of that committee,” Reid said. “I’m confident that he will, if the bill is as he believes it should  be, we’ll get something very quickly. But, I don’t think that we should wait around for a long time.” Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.  

Sanders, however, blocked a request by Republicans to clear the House-passed measure to the president’s desk Thursday.  

“I was surprised to see Senate Democrats block this important, bipartisan bill,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a statement. “There’s no reason for us not to pass it quickly here in the Senate. And the President should call for its passage right away too.”  

Sen. Jerry Moran offered the measure as an amendment at Thursday’s markup. The Kansas Republican was the first senator to call for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.  

Speaking Thursday, Moran criticized any suggestion that more reporting is needed before making policy changes.  

“This is a long line of information that’s been provided to the VA for a long period of time, and what I’m looking for is for the leadership to make changes, not to wait for another report,” Moran said.  

“Let’s give the tools to the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, whoever he or she is, to immediately move to deal with the issue of … 400-some employees at the department,” Moran said. “I’ve never seen the circumstance in which somebody is actually discharged, and so I want the secretary to have the tools to make the decision as to whether or not this person ought to be discharged , as compared to we cannot get rid of this person, let’s find another place to put him or her despite poor performance.”  

The  Moran amendment technically runs afoul of the prohibition on attaching legislative measures to appropriations, but it at least sends a message in Reid’s direction that there’s widespread support for the idea.  

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., did express concern that the legislation could have a negative effect on VA’s recruitment efforts.  

“Keep in mind this, because we want to do what’s best for the veterans: we put this on the books, you want to go to work for the VA … know that you can be fired in a second, with no due process,” Tester said. “Quite frankly, when it comes to recruitment and morale, think about what that’s going to happen. We had a pay freeze for nurses in the VA for three years. The private sector mopped us up, we couldn’t hire people because it sent the wrong signal.”  

“I’m not for anybody who’s not doing their job. I agree Sen. Moran, I’ll be in the front of the line with the biggest ax out there,” Tester said. “But the bottom line is we’ve got to make sure we have quality people in these hospitals, and I’m not sure this gets to that.”