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Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson Push VA Reform Bill Despite Committee Setback

May 22, 2014 - 6:00pm

Even as his bill empowering the secretary of VA to fire and demote problem employees is stalled in the Senate, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., continues to push his legislation.

After the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly to pass companion legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., earlier in the week, Rubio attempted to get the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to move on his bill on Thursday. But U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chair of the committee, insisted the bill needed an in-depth hearing and deferred an immediate vote on it.

Rubio took to the floor of the Senate on Thursday to urge the chamber to pass his bill, noting the VA department is currently facing criticism for reports of secret waiting lists at VA medical facilities across the nation.

One of the things that we're learning is not simply that there's a systemic problem in the veterans administration, but that there's been a deliberate effort by some within the administration, of some within the veterans administration to cover it up or to make things look better than they actually are, Rubio said. And that should trouble us even more, because the immediate reaction when an agency is confronted with a problem should be, We need to fix this. And instead, the reaction by some seems to be, We need to cover this. We need to make this look better than it really is. We need to diminish this. That is completely unacceptable, and people need to be held accountable to this.

If, in the United States Senate, among the men and women that serve and work here for us, someone was derelict in their duty, they would lose their jobs, Rubio continued. If in the private sector someone did not do their job, they would lose that job. In the military chain of command, if a commanding officer of a unit did not do his or her job, they would lose their job. And their superiors would have the ability to immediately discipline them. And so I think many Americans would be shocked to learn that even if the secretary wanted, today, to fire executive managers within the agency, he cannot. Instead, he has to institute a long and drawn-out process -- leading to this absurd conclusion that you are likelier to receive a bonus or a promotion than you are to have been fired because of mismanagement and dereliction of duty. And that is completely unacceptable.

Now, I think one thing we have to remember here is that the enormous and vast majority of the VAs more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hard-working people, Rubio added. Their departments well-documented reluctance to ensure that leaders are being held accountable for mistakes is not only tarnishing its reputation, it unfortunately is impacting many of these hard-working men and women who are doing their jobs within the agency.

Rubio urged the Senate to move quickly to pass the bill, noting they were about to adjourn for Memorial Day.

I come to this floor today to give my colleagues the opportunity to send this to the president before we leave for the Memorial Day recess, Rubio said. We have an opportunity, right now, to take up the bill that the House just passed by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority enacted into law by unanimous consent and send it to the president so he can sign it. So that a week from now, and a month from now, when the results of that investigation come to his desk and that of the secretary, they can discipline and/or fire the people who have not done their jobs and have put our veterans in harms way with regard to the services the VA is supposed to be offering. That is all this bill does. Nothing more and nothing less.

We are giving a secretary, appointed by this president, confirmed by this Senate, the opportunity to be able to fire employees of his agency that are not doing their jobs, Rubio added. That is all we are asking here. It is not more complicated than that. And I do not understand why anyone would not support that concept. And its right here for us. For everyone talking about how quickly we need to act on this -- here is your chance.

Even as the White House continues to insist VA Sec. Eric Shinseki is investigating the department and, despite dispatching Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to help, and insisting they have confidence in the secretary, some Democrats are backing Rubios and Millers legislation. In the House, 160 Democrats voted to back Millers bill. From his perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is co-sponsoring Rubios bill.

The veterans are not getting the medical care, the treatment that they need, said Nelson on Thursday. Some heads need to roll.

The VA bureaucracy has gotten to the point that it cannot respond to the desperate need of our veterans, Nelson added.

Gov. Rick Scott also stood behind the bill on Friday, thanking Nelson, Rubio and Miller.

I would like to thank the efforts of Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson for their cooperation and leadership to support legislation holding VA employees accountable for the mismanagement of our VA hospitals, Scott said. Its disappointing, however, that other members of the U.S. Senate blocked progress on this bill.

I appreciate the leadership of Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller as sponsor of this legislation in the House, and the House leadership on both sides of the aisle for their leadership in passage of this bill, Scott added. U.S. senators should ensure our fighting men and women receive the medical care they earned and fought for. They should not have gone home from Washington to celebrate our freedoms and remember the sacrifice of our veterans over Memorial Day until they passed this critical legislation.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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