Republican leaders are trying to turn a Shinseki problem into an Obama problem.
Calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation seemed to reach a fever pitch Thursday, as several more House and Senate Democrats deserted the administration and called for the agency head’s ouster following the release of a scathing watchdog report.
Yet Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia remained restrained, careful to avoid any appearance of seeking a Cabinet secretary's head as political trophy. Instead, the two Republican leaders chose to keep their public comments trained squarely on President Barack Obama. Boehner has been hesitant to call for Shinseki to resign, although he did say last week he was getting closer. On Thursday, he came out swinging at Obama instead. “The question I ask myself is, ‘Is [Shinseki] 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 told reporters Thursday. “The president is the one who should be held accountable.”
The leaders, according to aides, have made the calculation that feeding any public perception that Shinseki is to blame is ill-advised and shortsighted. Rather, putting the onus on Obama will have a more potent political and substantive effect in keeping the VA scandal at the fore.
If Shinseki becomes the embodiment of the scandal any more than he already is, the administration can assert that his firing was a strong step toward turning around the troubles at the VA. That is something it has already tried to do by announcing VA Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel’s resignation earlier this month, even though he had already announced last year that he would retire.
“We must remember this is about more than one man,” Cantor told reporters at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “Accountability for this starts at the very top. Senior appointed leaders in the Cabinet and agencies ultimately report to President Obama. It’s time the president specifically addresses what he plans to do to fix this problem now.”
Leaders believe that holding Obama directly at fault could neutralize potential administration talking points that they are dealing with the scandal if they install new leadership. That could leave a heart-string-tugging political issue exposed heading into an election year. But more substantively, it could ensure a public hanging does not distract the public from the systemic, bureaucratic problems in the department — and Republicans’ bills aimed at fixing them.
Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller told reporters Thursday that he is preparing a new bill that would force the VA to send veterans for outside care if their wait time exceeds one month. That adds to House-passed bills that ban bonuses for VA officials and try to empower the VA secretary to fire under-performing managers (Shinseki objects to the latter, holding that he already has such power).
Not all House Republican leaders are holding back. After the IG report was released, Miller called on Shinseki to resign.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, so far the sole member of Republican leadership to call for Shinseki to resign, was particularly outraged at a news conference Thursday morning. He held up a copy of a letter he said he and Miller had sent to the administration in January 2013 asking them to implement Government Accountability Office recommendations about wait times, a letter he said the administration ignored.
Yet he, too, trained his ire at Obama.
“They’ve known about this, ignored it,” he said.
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