Hours after President Obama made his first remarks on growing troubles inside the Veterans Administration in over three weeks, cracks began to appear among his supporters in Congress, as some Democrats for the first time publicly called for the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“The first person to fire is the Secretary,” said Rep. David Scott (D-GA) in a speech on the House floor that was filled with anger and frustration over the VA
“I was terribly disappointed with President Obama today,” Scott lamented, saying he saw “no sense of urgency” about stories that started out in Phoenix but have grown quickly in the last few weeks.
“Mr. President, we need urgency,” Scott said, his voice rising in the Well of the House.
“We need you to roll up your sleeves and get into these hospitals.”
Scott was not the first Democrat to go on the record calling for Shinseki to be forced out, as his colleague Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) had a few hours earlier demanded similar action.
“Unfortunately, this administration has fallen short in providing the kind of care that our veterans have earned,” said Barrow.
The bookends of Scott and Barrow – from the same state, but polar opposites in terms of politics – showcased how this VA issue has become more than just a story about one health center in Arizona.
For Scott and Barrow, the recent revelations about substandard care for veterans have been an unwelcome reminder of troubles in their home state of Georgia – and of the difficulty in getting VA officials to detail the problems.
“Three deaths occurred over the past two years under the watch of the Atlanta VA Medical Center after it lost track of mental health patients it referred to a contractor while also not keeping a close enough eye on those under its own care, a new federal audit found,” reported the Atlanta Journal Constitution in April of 2013.
“The head of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said Friday that top leaders at the Atlanta VA Medical Center clearly had “something to hide” after failing to reveal the suicide of a Georgia veteran at the hospital last fall,” the same paper reported in May of 2013.
In Augusta, three veterans may have died because of delayed cancer care caused by a backup involving gastrointestinal endoscopy.
“I do think it’s time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again,” said Rep. Barrow, one of the few Blue Dog Democrats left in Congress.
While Scott and Barrow publicly pressed for Secretary Shinseki to go, most Democrats held the line, from the President on down, holding off on calls for Shinseki’s resignation.
“We’re going to work with him to solve the problem,” the President told reporters in the White House briefing room, “but I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.”
In other words, Shinseki could still be pushed out at a later date.
A few hours after that statement, the House voted overwhelmingly to give the VA chief the power to fire senior VA executives for performance issues; the vote was 390-33, with all the ‘No’ votes coming from Democrats, most of them more liberal lawmakers.
But 162 Democrats voted for the GOP plan, obviously feeling the public heat over the VA.
“If you don’t do your job, you get fired,” an exasperated Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said on the House of Representatives, as he pushed approval of that VA accountability measure.
Miller was readying more subpoenas for VA officials on Thursday, still aggravated with the slow pace of work by the agency to turn over documents previously demanded by his veterans panel.