Tester moves a VA bill 

Back in mid-April, the nonprofit Concerned Veterans for America dropped its second web ad in as many months targeting Montana's 2018 U.S. Senate race. The clip wasn't an explicit attack on incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, but it did encourage him to throw his support behind the Veterans Affairs Accountability First Act, a measure passed in the House with the almost exclusive support of Republicans.

Such encouragement ads rarely fool anyone, and this particular spot failed to mention a key detail: Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was already crafting a bill of his own to expedite the firing of VA employees for misconduct while strengthening protections for those who report mismanagement or illegal activity. And he was doing so alongside the chair of that same committee, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Even Sen. Marco Rubio jumped on board. Their proposal—the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act—passed the Senate on June 6, which happened to be the 73rd anniversary of the D-Day landings.

"This bill will crack down on bad employees who jeopardize veterans' health care," Tester said after the voice vote, "while also protecting the hardworking folks who dedicate their careers to those who served."

The solution Tester and Isakson offered was vastly different than the one CVA pressed Tester to back. For starters, the two incorporated feedback from the government employees' union and worked to maintain current due-process protections for employees the VA seeks to fire. Their bill also codifies an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, though, unlike Trump's April order establishing the office, it places management in the hands of a Senate appointee rather than an executive one. The bill would require the VA to evaluate supervisors based on their protection of whistleblowers and to submit a report to Congress regarding its methods of investigating employees.

The bill's sidestepping of the partisan dysfunction that's plagued other issues became apparent immediately. Following the Senate's vote, President Donald Trump tweeted, "The House should get this bill to my desk ASAP! We can't tolerate substandard care for our vets." The House did indeed pass the measure June 13 on a vote of 368 to 55.

It's ultimately Tester's experience in Montana that informed his approach. Tester has hosted numerous listening sessions with veterans across the state over the years. The revelation two years ago that thousands of vets have died awaiting care through the Department of Veterans Affairs amplified his calls for reform. According to a Tester spokesperson, "Veterans who are frustrated with the VA are overwhelmingly the number-one type of casework Jon's office deals with on a daily basis."

By the time the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act hit the Senate floor in May, CVA had already adjusted course. In response to Tuesday's vote, the group's policy director, Dan Caldwell, issued a statement proclaiming, "Lives will be saved as a result of this legislation." Tester's name wasn't mentioned.

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