Top Veterans Affairs Nominee Faces Senate Panel, Promises to Make Sure Vets Get Care They Need

Ret. Army Lt. Gen. James Peake is promising to stand up to the White House when necessary if confirmed as Veterans Affairs secretary, saying he will fight for the appropriate money to make sure injured veterans get the care they need.

Peake, a former Army surgeon general who has spent 40 years in military medicine, was set to testify Wednesday for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Seeking to avoid the crossfire between President Bush and Congress over budget spending, Peake told the Senate panel in a written statement that he will be an independent advocate for veterans. He also pledged to keep an open mind about setting a guaranteed level of funding for the VA each year — something the VA has generally opposed — to ensure the embattled agency can provide high-quality health care without shortfall risks to millions of veterans.

"I believe I am in the administration with the responsibility to not only advocate for veterans, but to ensure that our veterans receive the best of care; that they have their benefits provided in a timely fashion," Peake said in responses provided to the committee and obtained by The Associated Press.

"I recognize that this means appropriately forecasting the needs and advocating for the funds to meet those needs while making sure that the funds provided are well used," he said.

Peake, 63, does not face significant resistance for the VA post.

Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has indicated that he would like to see Peake approved by the full Senate this month. Even the administration's most ardent critic on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., plans tough questions but expects him to be confirmed.

"The problems at the VA are huge, and lives are at stake," she said. "I hope General Peake's the guy for the job, because this administration has failed to plan and failed to be honest and we simply can't waste any more time when it comes to getting this right."

Peake was to be introduced Wednesday at the hearing by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. Dole was co-chair of a presidential commission overseeing veterans' care.

"I am committed to working with all involved parties and the Congress," Peake said in his prepared statement.

Veterans funding has been a sticking point between Congress and the Bush administration as they spar over spending for the Iraq war. In July 2005, months after taking office, former VA secretary Jim Nicholson suddenly announced the agency faced a $1 billion shortfall after failing to take into account the additional cost of caring for veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Government investigators later determined the VA repeatedly miscalculated — if not deliberately misled taxpayers — with questionable methods used to justify Bush administration cuts to health care.

In statements to Congress, Peake did not mention the 2005 budget shortfall but said he will closely consider the proposal to guarantee a minimum level of annual funding. Veterans groups say that would shield the VA budget process from politics and eliminate future shortfall risks.

"I understand that VA's position has been that annual actuarial projections, rather than pat formulas, are the most rational way to project the resource needs for veterans health care," he wrote. "I do have an open mind on the subject and intend to carefully study it."

The nomination of Peake comes as the administration and Congress struggle to resolve some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as boosting care for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and working to pay disability checks on time.

No major veterans organization is opposing Peake, although some have raised questions about how committed he would be in fixing problems.