The nominee to be the next No. 2 official at the Department of Veterans Affairs has been advanced by a Senate panel, but could face a bumpy road to final confirmation.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday voted 13-6 to advance Tanya Bradsher, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the next deputy VA secretary. If confirmed, Bradsher, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who currently serves as VA chief of staff, would be the first woman to permanently hold the post.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has signaled he could throw up roadblocks that slow full Senate approval for Bradsher over concerns that an IT system under her purview is not properly protecting whistleblowers' identities.
"Sen. Grassley remains deeply concerned that Tanya Bradsher's mishandling of veterans' private, sensitive information -- including whistleblowers' information -- makes her ineligible for this role," his office said in a statement to Military.com. "Sen. Grassley plans to continue working to shed light on Ms. Bradsher's shortcomings."
Grassley's office has not explicitly said he plans to place what's known as a hold on Bradsher, but he previously used the procedural tactic to stall the confirmation of the VA's under secretary for benefits over concerns about whistleblower protections.
A hold does not prevent a nominee from being confirmed, but means the confirmation could take considerably longer since the Senate would have to find time for floor votes.
Bradsher is a Bronze Star recipient who served in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. Since retiring from the military in 2013, she has also built up a lengthy resume in government, including stints at the National Security Council; the office of Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.; the Defense Health Agency; and White House Office of Public Engagement.
In May, she breezed through her confirmation hearing, where she vowed to make outreach to female veterans a priority.
"I have met so many women who don't recognize their own service, who minimize their time," she said.
Veterans Affairs Committee members have heaped praise on her.
"Tanya Bradsher's background in both military and civilian service demonstrates that she's well-qualified to serve as VA's second-in-command, and if confirmed I look forward to holding her accountable in delivering for our nation's veterans and their families," committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement Thursday after the committee advanced her.
Grassley's opposition to her centers on an issue that was not raised at her hearing: an internal messaging system at the VA known as the Veterans Affairs Integrated Enterprise Workflow Solution, or VIEWS. Last year, a whistleblower alleged the VA was failing to protect personal information, including Social Security numbers and medical records, of whistleblowers, veterans and employees because the information was available to anyone with access to VIEWS.
After the whistleblower complaint, a government watchdog directed the VA to conduct its own investigation into the allegations, giving the department a 60-day deadline.
"However, you should be aware that these investigations usually take longer, and agencies frequently request and receive extensions of the due date," the U.S. Office of Special Counsel added in an August 2022 letter to the whistleblower obtained by Military.com.
In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough last month, Grassley complained the investigation was still incomplete.
"VA and Ms. Bradsher must immediately explain their failure to protect this information for so long, even after being notified of these potential violations of federal data privacy laws," he wrote. "VA must also explain its delays in investigating the matter, while this sensitive information apparently remains available to those who should not have access to it."
In a letter responding to Grassley earlier this month, the VA said it expects its Office of Information and Technology to complete an investigation by Aug. 1 and said that, since last year's whistleblower complaint, the department has "improved training and implemented security enhancements limiting access to further strengthen protections of sensitive information in VIEWS."
Bradsher also told senators in written answers that she takes "the privacy of the veterans, families, caregivers and survivors that we serve extremely seriously and will continue to do everything in my power to protect it."
Grassley's office, though, said he found the responses "dissatisfactory."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.