As a growing number of lawmakers from both parties call for the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, the retired general’s fate is likely to be tied to his next meeting with President Obama, which could come as early as Friday.
At least five Senate Democrats, all up for reelection, have called for Shinseki to step down as bipartisan outrage builds on Capitol Hill after a scathing report from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office Wednesday.
That interim report said systemic problems were found throughout the VA system network in scheduling veterans for medical care and manipulating records to hide long waits for appointments. Veterans at the Phoenix VA, which the report focused on, wait an average of 115 days for appointments.
The report also disclosed that the investigation has expanded to 42 sites, up from the 26 previously stated, although only three have been named publicly.
The department’s inspector general is conducting a separate investigation into alleged falsification of records to hide long waits for medical appointments and has been in contact with the Justice Department, which could bring criminal charges.
Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Udall of Colorado, John Walsh of Montana and Al Franken of Minnesota have called for Shinseki to step down, as have Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Dan Dellinger, the commander of the 2.4-million-member American Legion, among others.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday said he would continue to reserve judgment on Shinseki.
“The question I ask myself is, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what’s really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no,” Boehner said at his weekly news conference.
“The real issue here is that the president is the one who should be held accountable,” he said.
Shinseki is scheduled to meet later Thursday with veterans’ groups.
He also is expected to present to Obama as early as Friday the preliminary findings of a nationwide audit of major VA facilities designed “to ensure understanding of, and compliance with, our appointment policy.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), asked about calls for Shinseki’s resignation, said at her weekly news conference: “I think it rewards those who have been misleading the secretary to say he should go because they misled him.”
Among California House members who have called for Shinseki’s resignation are Democrats Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, Jerry McNerney of Stockton and Scott Peters of La Jolla. Among Republican House members, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) have said Shinseki should step down.
“Secretary Shinseki is a distinguished Army general and Vietnam veteran that has served honorably,” Ruiz said. “However, these reprehensible scheduling deficiencies occurred under his watch and ultimately he is accountable.”
In the meantime, a veterans group has launched an ad campaign seeking to prod senators into swiftly passing legislation that would make it easier for the Veterans Affairs secretary to fire or demote senior employees, escalating a war of words between veterans groups and lawmakers over Congress’ response to the broadening VA health scandal.
The House last week overwhelmingly approved the VA Management Accountability Act, but a recent effort to bring up the bill in the Senate was blocked.
The Senior Executives Assn., which represents federal workers affected by the proposed legislation, opposed the House bill, saying it “provides the pretense of action in the guise of legislation” and “would transform career senior executives at the VA into another layer of political appointees.”
Concerned Veterans of America announced Wednesday that it is spending about $500,000 on Internet and TV ads targeting six Democratic senators.
“The VA is failing our veterans, and while our heroes are dying, Congress just keeps talking,” a narrator says in one ad, showing headlines of reports about long waits for VA medical care. The ad, proclaiming “It’s time to walk the walk,” calls on the public to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to bring the bill up for a vote.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week added the accountability legislation to a VA spending bill headed to the Senate floor.
But Pete Hegseth, chief executive of Concerned Veterans of America, said, “We want the bill to stand alone and not be watered down by other legislation.” He said the amendment also could still be stripped out.
“We want to ensure that Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Bernie Sanders don’t water down or indefinitely delay this legislation and we feel that by assembling a large bipartisan coalition of cosponsors, it will be more difficult for Senate leadership to ignore or gut this bill,” Hegseth said.