Senator pledges to hold back VA leadership candidates until department provides information on toxic exposures bill

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A Tennessee senator is blocking confirmation of four candidates for Veterans Affairs leadership positions due to persistent complaints about the department’s lack of response to the cost and scope of pending legislation providing more generous benefits to victims of cases of military exposure to toxic substances.

The decision by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has frustrated Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and stalled near-term department planning. The pending candidates include Donald Remy, chosen to be the VA assistant secretary, the department’s second highest position.

Blackburn declined to answer questions about the hold last week, and staff did not return requests for an explanation of the move.

On Tuesday, after Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., attempted to push forward the nominations, Blackburn objected and criticized the department.

“[My constituents] are distressed by the lack of service they receive from VA,” she said. “It’s unacceptable. It’s become the culture of the VA, and it’s something that needs to change.

In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough obtained by Military Times, Blackburn said she would not allow a full House confirmation vote on the nominees because “the administration must fulfill its constitutional duty to provide information to Congress, especially when it includes the potential impact the legislation could have on millions of veterans.

On Tuesday, she said she would continue withholds until July, when VA officials said they could provide the information.

Along with Remy, the wait prevents the confirmation and swearing in of Matthew Quinn, chosen to serve as Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs; Maryanne Donaghy, appointed to lead the VA whistleblower protection office; and Patricia Ross, chosen to be Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs.

The practice of anonymous withholding allows any individual senator to hold up candidates indefinitely for any reason. It is common in the Senate to suspend candidates for questions related to their background or concerns about their past comments, as is to withhold candidates for answers to unrelated policy questions or overdue congressional investigations.

But Tester criticized Blackburn for the decision.

“If Senator Blackburn wants more information about the cost of the legislation, maybe the senator shouldn’t hold the candidate responsible for getting that information from VA to Congress,” he said.

“If you want to hold VA accountable today, this is the wrong way to do it. If you want a VA that can work, then we need to have their staff in place.

Blackburn’s concerns center on the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act, which would reduce the documentation needed to prove the link between overseas burns or other exposures to toxic contaminants and the eligibility of veterans for disability benefits later in life.

VA and congressional officials have not offered a cost estimate for the package, but several GOP lawmakers have warned that the benefits could reach “hundreds of billions of dollars” in the coming years.

The measure is one of two major toxic exposure bills being debated in Congress and was passed unanimously last month by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Blackburn is on the committee and voted to advance the measure (and advance all four candidates, at the same meeting), but expressed concerns about the potential cost and scope of the bill.

“This bill will require VA to completely overhaul how it handles toxic exposure claims and establish a presumption of service connection for multiple illnesses,” she said during the markup.

“Does VA have the capacity to absorb the provisions of this legislation? Probably not. How long will it take to implement it? These are simple answers to questions that the committee has not yet received from VA.

However, Blackburn at the time also agreed to drop his concerns and allow the bill and the candidates to go ahead, on the understanding that committee officials would discuss the issues with department heads.

That decision changed in the last month.

In a statement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said, “It is extremely important and necessary that these leaders come to VA as quickly as possible. They play vital roles within the department, roles that will only help us in our efforts to provide the best health care and access to benefits for veterans.

Tester said he will continue to fight to move the nominations.

“If we don’t want to confirm qualified candidates, then why don’t we just close the VA?” The tester asked. “It doesn’t make much sense to me. And in the process, veterans suffer.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

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