By Mike Lillis - 05/20/14 01:36 PM EDT
President Obama’s chief of staff reassured frustrated House Democrats on Tuesday that the White House will respond aggressively to the controversy at the Veterans Affairs Department.
The VA has been under fire this month following reports that its healthcare facilities used secret waiting lists to disguise the number of veterans not treated within the agency's stated goal of 14 days. Dozens of veterans have reportedly died awaiting care.
“Denis McDonough made it very clear: The president is gonna be on this.”
Separately, the White House announced that Rob Nabors, McDonough’s deputy, will travel Wednesday to Phoenix, where a Veterans Affairs hospital is being scrutinized for 40 deaths.
Republicans have stepped up their pressure on the administration to take action and have signaled their intention of making the Veterans Affairs Department an issue in the midterm elections.
The House will vote this week on legislation that would make it easier for the administration to fire career public servants in the department found to have been responsible for delays in treatment.
A number of Republicans also have called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Tuesday that the reports are evidence of “clearly outrageous, unacceptable activity which have harmed our veterans.” If there was a cover-up, Hoyer said, "anybody involved … should be either disciplined or removed.”
But he said he's awaiting an investigation, overseen by Nabors, before passing final judgment.
“I'm prepared to wait until that report before I recommend any further action,” Hoyer said.
Before his trip, Nabors will meet on Tuesday with several veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS and Vietnam Veterans of America.
GOP leaders have criticized Obama for not knowing more about what's happening in the VA under his watch.
“The American people are frustrated, especially when those that have served our country in uniform have been treated the way they have, and God forbid, have perished because of the mess at the VA,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday. “And I will tell you, I am disturbed by statements out of the White House that say the president heard about this in the news. It is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight.”
Democrats say they're also frustrated with how the story broke.
“No one wants to learn about a situation through the news,” Becerra said. But they're also trying to preempt GOP political attacks based on the scandal.
“We also want to make sure that it's clear that we don't want to turn this into another political tool ... so you can raise campaign cash off of our veterans,” Becerra said. “There should be nothing partisan about this.”
Russell Berman and Justin Sink contributed.