House Democrats Face Rare Split Over VA Firing Bill

Thursday, 22 May 2014 09:36 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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House Democrats are split over the VA Accountability Act, a measure giving the Veterans Affairs secretary authority to fire senior executives.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., voted for the bill, which passed by a 390-33 vote on Wednesday, reports The Hill. But many other top Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.; and House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., voted against the measure.

The 33 votes against the bill all came from Democrats, marking a rare split for Pelosi and other top Democrats, who typically vote in unison on House bills. However, three of Pelosi's closest Democratic allies, California Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman, along with Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, also voted against the new bill.

As federal civil service rules stand now, it is difficult to fire a career civil servant, reports The Washington Post. If the Senate passes the bill — which may occur if Senate Democrats are split like their House counterparts on the issue — the bill gives the VA secretary the firing authority similar to what a CEO might enjoy at a large company.

The bill is not only tied to the current situation, reports The Post. The VA has long been criticized that employees who are involved in cases of mismanagement or veterans' deaths that could have been prevented often go unpunished. In some cases, those employees have received promotions or large bonuses, even after cases of wrongdoing are exposed.

In March, before the current scandal broke out, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said his bill is not intended to disparage "hundreds of thousands of dedicated VA employees," but to "help them as well as the department as a whole."

Hoyer said Wednesday he voted against the bill because it is a "knee-jerk reaction to a broad situation" and will not solve the problems surrounding the Veterans Affairs division and its latest scandal involving veterans being wait-listed on fake lists and not receiving care.

"If the allegations are true, heads ought to roll," said Hoyer, who represents thousands of federal workers. The measure could undermine the civil service system, he said.

"I believe it opens the door to undoing the careful civil service protections that have been in place for decades," Hoyer said, noting that he could not vote for the bill as written.

Meanwhile, Maine Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud, who is the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs committee, said during floor debate that he agrees with his colleagues' concerns, but still wanted the bill to move on to the Senate.

"This bill does not address the problem systematically within the VA," Michaud said. But, he added "we must move forward to deal with this issue."

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