The leaders of the House and Senate veterans’ committees signaled Wednesday that they remain supportive of embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, amid reports President Donald Trump could oust him as part of a wider shake-up of his Cabinet.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs panel, and Rep. Phil Roe, the chairman of the House’s veterans panel, each said they believed Shulkin had done a fine job in the role.
While he noted “there’s been a lot of controversy,” Roe said that Shulkin “has done a bang-up job.” “I would certainly hate to see him leave that position. We have a great working relationship,” Roe said Wednesday.
For his part, Isakson said that he believed Shulkin “has done a fine job” and that he continues to “support the VA and Secretary Shulkin.”
CNN and The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump was considering replacing Shulkin with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, an Air Force veteran and former Texas governor.
Shulkin could not be reached for comment and a Shulkin adviser referred questions to the White House.
The news that the President could imminently replace Shulkin added a new cloud of uncertainty over the VA, which has been in a state of upheaval for months.
“We woke up this morning and we don’t know by the end of today who our VA secretary will be,” Rep. Tim Walz, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.
Shulkin, who won unanimous confirmation by the Senate last year, had enjoyed bipartisan support and the backing of the President who touted his legislative victories at VA.
But toward the end of the year, the situation seemed to grow more tenuous by the month – with Shulkin telling reporters that Trump administration political appointees have been working to oust him over policy differences.
Those were largely linked to the moderate path he’s taken on how to best deliver health care to the nation’s veterans. Shulkin has taken a more moderate approach to expanding the Choice Program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside VA’s health care system.
Conservatives at VA and in the White House have been advocating for more unlimited choice for veterans, and have seen Shulkin as a roadblock toward meeting that goal. Many veterans groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill have opposed pushing more veterans’ care into the private sector.
“If the VA gets privatized, we will not have done a service to our veterans,” Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans panel, told CNN, “I just think this is bad on all sorts of fronts. It’s all about privatization with these guys and it’s driving me crazy.”
The rift between Shulkin and those within the agency and at the White House became public in February after Shulkin was the subject of a damning inspector general report related to a trip that he took to Europe last summer.
The report found that there were “serious derelictions” by Shulkin and members of his staff on how the trip was handled, including that his then-chief of staff altered an email to justify allowing the Secretary’s wife to travel to Europe on the taxpayers’ dime.
It also found that Shulkin inappropriately accepted gifted tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match and that the trip had a heavy focus on sightseeing with a VA aide used as a “personal travel concierge.”
Shulkin has repaid the government for taxpayer costs.
In the wake of the IG report, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado called on Shulkin to resign, and has since written to Trump calling on him to remove Shulkin from the VA’s top job.
“He’s just not changing the culture of the VA,” Coffman told CNN on Wednesday. “He just hasn’t cleaned house. That combined with his own conduct – I just don’t think he has the leadership or the moral authority to move the VA forward.”
Asked whether he would support Perry, the Energy Secretary, as a replacement if Shulkin resigns or is fired by the President, Coffman said that he “definitely want(s) somebody from the outside who has strong leadership experience, but I absolutely think Shulkin needs to go.”