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Shinseki, VA Scandal Has Obama on Defense, Lawmakers Angry

Shinseki (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Shinseki (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As outcry over the still-unfolding veterans scandal grew Monday, the White House offered a muted defense of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, while House Republicans and Democrats planned to take quick action.  

Five days after Shinseki was called before the Senate to testify about allegations that the VA falsified wait times for veterans seeking treatment, the House will vote Tuesday on a bill that would give the VA secretary greater authority to fire the entrenched bureaucrats responsible for the scandal.  

The bill currently has 118 co-sponsors, including five Democrats, but reaction from the White House was cool Monday. “We’ll look closely at the bill,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, but he brushed aside demands from some who have called for President Barack Obama to fire Shinseki.  

“The president has confidence in Secretary Shinseki,” he said.  

Critics of the House bill have said empowering the secretary to get rid of incompetent managers could have a “chilling effect” on recruiting and retaining high-quality executives.  

“This would jeopardize VA’s ability to recruit senior managers from outside the Department as well as promising General Schedule employees that VA hopes to advance to SES leadership,” Curtis Coy, the deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at VA, said in written testimony  before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in March.  

Veterans groups such as the American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America support the legislation, as do many Republicans.  

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., released a statement May 15, saying the bill would bring “real accountability” to the VA and would “force” the administration to answer longstanding issues.  

Cantor added that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki “should be held accountable for the failures of his department, but it is ultimately President Obama who must answer for what has occurred under his administration.”  

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who has repeatedly called for Shinseki’s resignation, suggested on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the issues at VA were so bad, resignations might not be enough.  

“This has gone from an incompetence … to something criminal,” Kinzinger said.  

Republicans trickling back into Washington after a week-long recess said constituents back home are upset.  

“Veterans want answers, the people want answers,” Roger Williams, R-Texas, told CQ Roll Call. “I think we’ll begin to see some movement here once we get back tomorrow.  We need answers and whatever it takes to get the answers, we’ll be doing.”  

Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said passage of the VA Management Accountability Act is the first step. “We’ve had all these problems in the VA for years now. Not one senior level official has really had — and they don’t even get bad performance reviews. No one’s ever held accountable. Hopefully the Senate will consider that and then we can see what else we need to do.”  

The scandal has cost one official his job. Robert Petzel, the VA undersecretary for health, stepped down from his position on Thursday . To show how significant that resignation was, the White House issued a statement saying they supported Shinseki’s decision to accept Petzel’s resignation.  

But Republicans aren’t satisfied. They charge that Petzel falling on his sword isn’t going to change anything. In fact, as Republicans were quick to point out, Petzel was scheduled to retire in 2014.  

“Characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said in a statement. In fact, Miller called the resignation “the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak.”  

Miller’s panel, for only the second time in the committee’s history, issued a subpoena for emails and written correspondence regarding the Phoenix VA scandal sent to or received by Shinseki and a number of other VA officials since April 9.  

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough went on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday and said President Obama was “madder than hell” about the alleged VA scandal in Phoenix.  

Connor O’Brien, Bridget Bowman and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.