First District Rep. Tim Walz is expected to officially become the lead Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs today after his main rival for the post dropped his bid.
California Rep. Mark Takano announced this week he was dropping out of the race and will back Walz for the post.
"As a veteran and as a passionate advocate for those who have served, I know that Congressman Walz will do everything in his power to make good on that promise," Takano said in a statement.
Takano had been serving as the ranking Democrat on the committee after the previous leader — Florida Rep. Corrine Brown — was indicted on fraud charges. Brown lost her re-election bid last year.
Members of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee recently voted 31-19 to recommend the top post be given to Walz.
Initially, Takano said he would challenge Walz in a vote before the entire Democratic caucus, but he changed his mind this week. A vote by the House Democratic caucus on Walz's nomination will be held this afternoon.
In an interview on Tuesday, Walz said he is eager to take on the new role.
"I'm certainly honored, humbled and ready to work," the Mankato Democrat said.
During his run for the post, Walz emphasized his military experience. He is the only Democratic veteran on the committee. He retired as a command sergeant major in the Army National Guard, making him the highest ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress. He also has a strong relationship with the committee's Republican chairman — Rep. Phil Roe, of Tennessee. Both are Army veterans and serve in the Invisible Wounds Caucus together.
"I'm thrilled to hear that my good friend and fellow veteran, Rep. Tim Walz, has been elected ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Rep. Walz has been a tireless advocate for veterans, and I know he will continue that fight as ranking member," Roe said in a statement.
Reforming the VA
Walz said he expects debate about how best to improve the VA system to be front and center in the upcoming session. President-elect Donald Trump has called for sweeping changes to the system, including giving veterans the choice of getting care from the VA or the private health care system. Walz agrees changes are needed but said Trump's plan goes too far and simply would not work.
"The public means well by this — we'll just give veterans a card and let them go anywhere. The private sector says that's not going to work. In many cases, we're overwhelmed," he said.
But Walz said changes do need to be made to make it easier for veterans to get care. That means giving veterans the option to get some medical work done at their local health care provider when it makes sense.
"There is a time when it doesn't make any sense to take an 89-year-old veteran all the way up to Minneapolis to do a blood test when the Sleepy Eye hospital is quite capable of doing that," he said. Walz said it also is time for the VA to change the way it does business so it is more patient-centered.
When the VA system originally was built, he said, the focus was on building large hospitals with lots of beds for inpatient care. Fast forward to today, and most veterans are receiving outpatient care.
Walz said he wants to see the VA system expand its hours to meet the needs of today's veterans.
"There's no reason VA's can't have urgent cares. And there's no reason that the VA needs to close the door at 5 o'clock because most people still work or have kids, and you kind of want to stop in when you can get in," he said.
The six-term congressman said he is optimistic Republicans and Democrats can work together on veterans issues.
He added, "This is an area that Americans expect to have us to work on. I’m not buying into the frame that everything is a fight, everything has to be opposed.”