WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Thom Tillis walks a different set of hallways for his new job. But after nearly eight months as United States Senator from North Carolina, the Republican does see some similarities from when he was a state lawmaker.
"There is a little bit more complexity in Washington, DC," said the 55-year-old from Huntersville, NC. "The parties tend to be a little more in line with their leadership, which makes for challenges to get things done, but it's very similar to Raleigh. There are the same kinds of challenges, spending priorities and regulatory reform. All the kinds of things we need to do for the nation to get the economy back on track."
Tillis sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and has spoken out against the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. Congress is likely to vote on the pact when members return from recess in September.
"The only reason Iran came to the table was because the sanctions were working and they needed relief," Tillis said about the deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry. "I think we should have kept the sanctions regime in place, and we should have worked more with the middle eastern partners to improve their conventional war fighting capabilities. We should have forced Iran to come to the table and negotiate from a position of strength. This is a nation that no one trusts. The deal negotiators to a person when in the Senate Armed Services (Committee), when we said 'how many of you trust them?', no one raised their hand, when we said 'how many of you think they're going to cheat?', all of them raised their hand. So that tells me the deal was not as good as it could be had we negotiated from a position of strength."
"The very experienced people say 'we can catch them when they cheat'. Not 'if' they cheat, but 'when' they cheat. We just think there are a lot of defects in this agreement that could have been avoided had we been a little more forceful at the negotiating table," he said.
WECT has made Tillis' office aware of the issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Wilmington The 80,000-square-foot clinic near Wilmington's Airport is only 2-years-old, but an internal plumbing issue has contaminated the water, making it unsafe for drinking according to local health officials. That forced the closure of the dental, urology and GI departments for 5 months and counting. Veterans have had appointments cancelled and procedures postponed. Tillis calls the situation "unacceptable," and part of a failed system that needs to be reformed.
"I don't want people to think my positive comments about people in the VA facilities trying to do right by any means suggests that we've got a good process in place," he said. "We've got a bloated organization at the bureaucratic level, we've got bloated policies, procedures and organizations that are the reasons why we have unacceptable wait times and outcomes for veterans, and that's what I'm trying to focus on. We have a lot of problems we have to fix in the VA for the benefit of the veterans."
When asked what he would say to veterans who have had problems getting their healthcare at the VA clinic in Wilmington, Tillis pledged that his office staff would help any veteran not satisfied that they are headed in the right direction after calling their local VA facility.
"I say that we need to work on their 'Choice' options, which was a great concept but poorly implemented," he said. "We need to make sure they can have access to non-VA care. In the meantime, let me help them produce a better outcome. I'm serious when I say I want them to call my office (in Greenville, NC) and let us help. We've helped a lot of veterans already. That's the role we can play now when the VA process is not working as reliably as it should be." (According to Tillis' staff, the number for his Greenville office is 252-329-0371)
WECT informed lawmakers what we uncovered regarding the Wilmington clinic's finances, that the VA is locked into a 20-year lease and will spend $68 million in rent over that time period.
"We've got a VA facility in Denver that was supposed to cost $700 million, that now with overruns is over a billion dollars and is not complete," Tillis said. "There are dozens and dozens of examples where contracting and procurement are not working. Every dollar we waste is one dollar I could be spending helping a vet and that is inexcusable."
When told the VA redacted rent amounts and square footage information from the other leases we requested for the surrounding clinics. Tillis offered to help find out why WECT did not receive the information.
"I think anytime we spend taxpayer dollars, unless it is some highly classified homeland security or defense issue where I may be able to see it only in a classified setting, we need to be able to see that," he said.
During the hotly contested senate campaign in 2014, Tillis criticized then-Sen. Kay Hagan for missing key meetings of Senate Armed Services Committee, including one to attend a campaign fundraiser in New York City. When Tillis missed a Committee meeting July 7 on ISIS, critics pounced with charges of hypocrisy. "I think we're talking about an apple and an orange," Tillis said when asked about his absence. "I was not present at a public meeting, getting a national security briefing from former Vice-President (Dick) Cheney, who knows a little bit about the region. Sen. Hagan was on the Emerging Threats Committee, which is a classified briefing. Unlike me, she couldn't go back to the tape and to the testimony and watch it after the meeting. You have to be in classified briefings, because that's where the most imminent and important information can be shared with members. I don't miss those meetings." (NOTE: Hagan was on the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities).
While Congress has been on its' recess, the presidential candidates have had most of the country's political attention. Tillis shared some of his thoughts on the massive field of candidates seeking his party's nomination, and the attention given to businessman Donald Trump, the leader in many recent polls.
"I think we're going through the natural phase where now people are judging personalities," he said. "It's a very important part of the process. Who do they feel comfortable with potentially being the leader of the greatest, most powerful nation. As the primary proceeds, and we get into October, we'll get into the meatier policy issues like how can you convince me that you can protect the nation and make the world more secure, protect my homeland, improve my economy, that will be to me when it gets more interesting. Now it's at the popularity test level.