Senate Democrats want to give senior Department of Veterans Affairs officials the right to appeal decisions that they should be fired or downgraded because of their role in the veterans healthcare scandal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday proposed a VA bill, along with 22 Senate Democrats, that is a far cry from the legislation the House passed two weeks ago with overwhelming Democratic support. That House bill would let the VA Secretary immediately fire or demote any senior official if warranted by their performance, language aimed at quickly addressing attempts to cover up the long wait times veterans faced before seeing a doctor.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wants fired VA officials to be able to appeal decisions that they be fired or demoted. More than 20 Democrats support his bill. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Sanders' proposal includes similar language on firing or demoting these officials, but adds new language allowing VA officials to appeal those decisions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Appeals could be made within 7 days of a decision to fire or demote an official, and the Board would be required to decide these appeals within 21 days.
But the bill also indicates that an appeals process could last much longer than 21 days. It says:
"In any case in which the Merit Systems Protection Board determines that it cannot issue a decision in accordance with the 21-day requirement… the Merit Systems Protection Board shall submit to Congress a report that explains the reason why…"
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sanders said he wants to prevent either political party from firing all senior VA officials without any due process.
"I do not think it is a good idea to give the Secretary of an institution, of an agency that has some 300,000 employees, the ability to simply fire without any due process," he said. "What I worry about is that you can move toward a situation where the VA health care system is politicized in a way that it should not be."
Sanders also said he worries that future whistleblowers could be fired with no due process, or other employees.
"[M]aybe they are a woman and somebody doesn't like a woman in that position. Maybe they are gay, maybe they are black, maybe they are whatever, and that person does not have any ability to appeal that decision," he said.
Senate Republican aides have already indicated the GOP opposes Sanders' language as something that would create more red tape and bureaucratic obstacles to firing officials involved in the VA scandal.
As a result, Sanders' bill seems likely to delay the process of passing a VA reform bill in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated he wants the Senate to vote on Sanders' bill, not the House-passed bill.
That is likely to frustrate Republicans, and could lead them to oppose a closed process that only lets them vote on the bill backed by Democrats. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pleaded with Reid to allow some kind of open process involving amendments, something that hasn't happened very often under Reid.
"I believe… the amendment process and through debate, which Sen. Harry Reid has not allowed on other pieces of legislation, is vital, because there’s a lot of good ideas out there," McCain said.
In the meantime, House Republicans believe Senate Democrats are over-complicating the process, and should just approve the House bill that was supported by 162 Democrats.
"Nearly two weeks ago, House Republicans and Democrats set politics aside and worked together to urgently begin reforming the VA to protect veterans," Rory Cooper, communications director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told TheBlaze. "It's time Senate Democrats do the same and prioritize veterans over under performing bureaucrats."