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Robert Wilkie, Trump's pick for Veterans Affairs secretary, clears key Senate hurdle

Robert Wilkie, the nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington on June 27, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Al Drago
Robert Wilkie, the nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs, speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington on June 27, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, won overwhelming endorsement Tuesday from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, all but guaranteeing his confirmation by the full Senate later this summer.

The senators approved sending Wilkie’s nomination to the Senate floor in a voice vote, with only Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., being recorded as a no, according to a committee spokeswoman. Sanders’s vote was not a reflection on Wilkie personally but as a result of his concern that the Trump administration plans to privatize veterans’ health care, a spokesman for the senator said.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., issued a statement after Tuesday’s vote calling Wilkie a respected and talented nominee, and urging the Senate to approve his nomination to run the embattled federal agency.

“Mr. Wilkie has the expertise and the positive attitude to take on challenges that lie ahead, and he will prove indispensable in helping transform the VA,” Isakson said. “Today’s committee vote signals the broad, bipartisan support that I hope we can look forward to in his confirmation by the full Senate.”

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement that Wilkie “has experience and a commitment to veterans and their families that should serve our men and women in Montana and across the nation.”

Isakson told Wilkie during his 90-minute confirmation hearing in June that, upon becoming VA secretary, he would face a severe morale crisis at the federal government’s second-largest department, which has been without a permanent director since the president fired David Shulkin in March.

Wilkie, 55, an Air Force reservist and the son of an Army artillery commander who was severely wounded in Vietnam, is now in charge of military personnel policy for the Trump administration. He has spent three decades working in Washington on military and national security issues, developing deep connections on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

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Wilkie grew up visiting American battlefields with his father and developed a lifelong fascination with military history. His ancestors fought for the Confederacy. During his confirmation hearing, he was pressed by some Democrats to explain his past embrace of divisive cultural issues during a long career working for polarizing political figures, including the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

Wilkie also was a member and supporter of organizations dedicated to preserving Confederate memorials and honoring the Confederacy. He told committee members even before his hearing that his association with those groups ended as they became more politically divisive.

Democrats on the panel apparently were convinced that Wilkie, who is widely respected on Capitol Hill for his command of legislative procedure and military policy, would serve all veterans despite his association with divisive politicians.

Wilkie said that if confirmed, he would carry out the mandate of newly passed legislation that calls for expanding private health care for veterans. But he said private care would not replace VA, a long-standing fear among Democrats.

At his confirmation hearing, Wilkie cited a raft of “administrative and bureaucratic” issues he said he saw firsthand during the eight weeks he served as acting VA secretary. He said he would fix them by modernizing the agency’s cumbersome medical appointment system, shifting its paper-based disability claims to an electronic one and improving an antiquated human resources operation to serve a changing population of veterans, half of whom are younger than 65.

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