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Partisan freeze on Trump's VA pick? Don't count on it, Johnny Isakson says

WASHINGTON – Democrats pulled several pages from their defensive playbook Tuesday in order to pump the brakes on three of President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees.

But Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is confident the same won’t happen today when the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee he leads vets David Shulkin, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Isakson gushed about Shulkin in a recent interview and said broad bipartisan support should be expected.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but I think you’ll probably get more support from both parties than anybody else as a nominee for a cabinet position,” said Isakson.

That would be notable, even for a traditionally bipartisan issue such as VA, given how bitter and confrontational the Cabinet confirmation process has grown in recent weeks.

Indeed, other senators and veterans groups have indicated they’re on the same page when it comes to Shulkin, according to the Military Times.

Shulkin, 57, is the only Obama administration holdover Trump tapped for his cabinet, having served as the VA’s top health official since mid-2015. If confirmed, he’d become the first non-veteran to hold the agency’s top position.



Trump’s selection of Shulkin last month had come as a surprise, since the President had talked about making major changes to the scandal-prone, $175 billion department.

“He’s done an admirable job” so far, said Isakson. “He’s done what we’ve asked him to come to the agency and do.”

Wednesday’s hearing will be Isakson’s first turn in the spotlight as Senate VA chairman since Trump was sworn in as commander in chief.

Both Trump and Isakson have discussed cracking down on bad VA employees, long considered a major problem plaguing the VA. Trump has also talked about allowing more veterans to make appointments with non-VA physicians, a move that raised alarm among some stakeholders that he’d move toward privatizing all or parts of the VA.

“Let me make something patently clear …we’re not going to privatize the VA,” Isakson said. “We’re going to elevate the VA and raise it up to the place it deserves to be.”

One of the first tasks before Isakson’s committee is to extend a 2014 program that’s allowed some veterans to visit non-VA doctors. The program hasn’t been without problems, including recent media reports have indicated the three-year-old law has done little to cut down on wait times.

Isakson and his House counterpart also penned a letter to the President last week seeking more information about how his temporary federal hiring freeze would impact the VA.

The agency recently issued guidance saying “frontline caregivers” and others deemed “necessary for public safety” would be exempted from the freeze at the VA.

“It’s always good to manage your labor costs if you’re trying to have a more efficient government," Isakson said. "But you also have to deliver the essential services that you’re supposed to. Health care for veterans is one of them and we can’t let essential personnel be terminated and not replaced if they’re needed in the operating room or in diagnostics or counseling.”

Some veterans groups have also raised concerns about the impact of the freeze government-wide, since veterans often get preferential treatment when applying for federal jobs.

Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said roughly one-third of his group’s members are government employees.

"While some may not be impacted by a freeze, job seekers waiting to hear about a hiring determination just had their hope dashed.”

Read more: Obama approves veterans measure championed by Johnny Isakson

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.