WASHINGTON -- President Reagan Monday tapped Assistant Army Secretary Harry Walters to head the Veterans Administration, which faces competing demands from veterans for increased services and from the administration for less spending.
White House aides indicated during the past few weeks that Walters, 46, had been picked for the post. But before the nomination was made official it ran into a snag on Capitol Hill where Veterans Affairs Committee legislators complained they had not been consulted.
Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he would reserve judgment on Walters until the confirmation hearings are over.
If confirmed by the Senate, Walters will succeed Robert Nimmo, who resigned in October after a turbulent tenure in which he was criticized for being unsympathetic to the needs of Vietnam veterans and improperly using government funds for his personal use.
Nimmo, in attempting to toe the Reagan budget line, ran afoul of veterans as well as some members of Congress, who called for his resignation.
Senate confirmation hearings are expected to be held during the lame-duck session of Congress for Walters to head the VA, a sprawling bureaucracy with 235,000 employees and a fiscal 1983 budget of $25 billion. A VA spokesman said the administration is second only to the Pentagon in total number of workers.
Walters had been criticized by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C, when he was appointed to the Pentagon post, because he served only four years in the Army after graduating from West Point in 1959.
Walters said he left the service for a business career to support his family.
Sen. Alan Simpson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, had lobbied for the appointment of committee staff director Thomas Harvey to the VA post, and expressed anger that Harvey had not been initially interviewed at the time the Walters nomination was first talked about.
Simpson now is out of the country, but an aide said Monday the senator had no plans to obstruct the nomination and would keep an open mind pending hearings. The aide said confirmation should be completed before Congress adjourns in mid-December.
Thurmond, second-ranking Republican on the panel, said of Walters Monday, 'He has the education and experience to fill the position and I'll support the nomination.'
In the House, Veterans Affairs Committee chairman G.V. 'Sonny' Montgomery, D-Miss., said, 'I am pleased the administration has acted on this matter, and I look forward to a speedy confirmation hearing so that we can begin working with him on the fiscal year 1984 VA budget.'
Walters said through a spokesman at the Pentagon he is 'deeply honored that President Reagan has nominated me,' but said he would decline further comment until his confirmation hearing.
Walters has been serving as assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs since June 1981. He formerly served as president of Potsdam Paper Corp. in Potsdam, N.Y., and with other paper companies in Dayton, Ohio, and Richmond, Va.
While at West Point, Walters played fullback on Army's last undefeated football team and was mentioned for All-America honors.
The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with 4.5 million members between them, welcomed Walters' nomination while urging that he uphold the interests of veterans.
Mylia Kraja, executive director of the Legion's Washington office said recently he 'was quite impressed' when he met Walters.
James Currieo, VFW national commander, said, 'We note with optimism the nomination of Walters. We remind him that we ask him to make a commitment to veterans the same way the president did.'
Currieo added, 'We also remind Mr. Walters that if he is confirmed by the Senate, that our organization means to hold the president, through him, responsible for veterans' concerns.'