The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill to grant the Veterans Affairs secretary expanded authority to fire senior executives for poor performance.
The measure passed on a 390-33 vote amid allegations that veterans encountered delays in access to medical care at multiple VA hospitals across the country, leading to dozens of deaths. All 33 votes in opposition came from Democrats, including leadership Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) voted to approve the measure.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the measure would help rid the department of incompetent employees in light of the controversy.
"The committee has received nothing but disturbing silence from the White House and only excuse after another from the Department of Veterans Affairs," Miller said.
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) said the legislation would send a message that the VA would be held accountable.
"It is very important as we go into Memorial Day that we let the veterans know that we appreciate their service. And we also need to let them know that we're going to do all we can to make sure they have the quality healthcare they deserve," Brown said.
An administration official said the White House supports the overall goals of the legislation but also had concerns that it could have unintended consequences.
"We do have some concerns that some provisions could result in significant litigation, which would divert valuable time and resources from VA’s accountability efforts and its core mission of delivering quality services to our veterans," an administration official said. "But we’ve been very clear we want to work with Congress on specific language issues and look forward to discussing the bill going forward."
The House vote came as pressure grew on President Obama to act over the alleged misconduct, and as the inspector general for the VA said he was expanding his probe to look at 26 VA medical facilities around the country.
Obama earlier Wednesday vowed to punish any misconduct at the VA after a meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House top aide Rob Nabors, who is leading an internal review.
"If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable; it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it," Obama said at a news conference.
Two House Democrats (Reps. John Barrow and David Scott, both of Georgia) joined GOP lawmakers in calling for Shinseki to step down.
Hoyer, the minority whip who represents thousands of federal employees, argued the legislation would inadvertently undermine the civil service. He said that the bill would do nothing to improve the culture at the VA.
"If the allegations are true, heads ought to roll. That's not what this legislation is about," Hoyer said. "This legislation is about a knee-jerk reaction to a broad situation.
"I cannot support this bill as written,” Hoyer continued. “I believe it opens the door to undoing the careful civil service protections that have been in place for decades.”
But Miller said the measure was currently the only legislative response to the allegations.
"It's the only action to a crisis. The president for three weeks has said nothing until today," he said.
Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), the top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who is running for governor, said that, while the measure had shortcomings, he would still support it so it could move to the Senate.
"This bill does not address the problem systematically within the VA," Michaud said. But, he added, "we must move forward to deal with this issue."
— This story was updated at 9:29 p.m.