By Justin Sink - 05/21/14 07:10 PM EDT
Two House Democrats broke ranks with the White House on Wednesday and called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
Georgia’s John Barrow and David Scott are the first Democrats to call for Shinseki’s head, and their statements illustrated growing unease over the administration’s response to allegations that dozens of veterans have died because of secret waiting lists that delayed their treatment.
Obama vowed to punish any misconduct related to the scandal.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable; it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it,” Obama said in remarks from the White House.
But Obama said Shinseki, who was summoned for a private meeting with the president but did not appear publicly at his side, had put his “heart and soul” into helping veterans. The president said he would wait on the results of an administration investigation before taking action to punish VA employees.
Frustration that Obama had not fired Shinseki seemed palatable following his remarks.
The American Legion called Obama’s decision to stand by Shinseki an “unfortunate one,” while Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called the president's comments “a tremendous disappointment.”
Shinseki’s leadership of the VA is likely to be raised by GOP candidates across the country.
The House overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday evening to approve legislation that would make it easier to hold government workers found responsible for secret waiting lists accountable.
Republicans seized on the bill, arguing they had acted where the president had not.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the legislation addressed the “disturbing silence from the White House.”
And Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged Obama to tell Democrats in the Senate to back the bill.
“I urge the president to call on his party’s leaders in the Senate to act on this bill immediately,” Boehner said. “The president has made a lot of promises to our veterans. It’s time to keep them.”
Barrow, who represents a majority Republican district, blasted the Obama administration for having “fallen short in providing the kind of care that our veterans have earned.”
“While I don't think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, 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,” Barrow said.
A top Democratic recruit — Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays, who is seeking the House seat to be vacated by Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) — also said he wanted Shinseki to resign. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts who had previously supported Shinseki, also asked him to step down.
The White House has at times appeared flat-footed in its response to the VA controversy, and questions about the GOP bill led to another odd messaging stumble by the White House on Wednesday.
Press secretary Jay Carney had said in recent days that, while the administration shares the goals of the House GOP bill, it also has concerns about the legislation. But pressed on Wednesday, Carney could not detail any of the administration’s objections.
“I don't know the specifics,” the White House spokesman said, adding that he did not possess “an itemization of some of the issues.”
An association representing top-level government employees has complained that the House bill would eliminate due process protections afforded to top-tier government officials.
According to the Senior Executives Association, government employees are currently allowed to appeal firings and demotions to an administrative panel. The House bill would eliminate that recourse. The group also expressed concerns that the bill would allow the department to scapegoat career civil servants in the media and interject politics into the firing process.
But the White House did not echo those concerns when prompted, saying only that it supported the spirit of the GOP-authored bill.
Senate Democrats — likely wary of providing the GOP political ammunition — seem willing to consider the House proposal. An aide to Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the committee would be open to scheduling a hearing on the House bill.
Sanders met earlier Wednesday with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, who has been consulting with lawmakers concerned over the crisis.
Following the meeting, which he called “productive,” Sanders said he was willing to work with Republicans to improve the VA healthcare system but warned them against politicizing the issue.
“If there are folks who want to use this as a political football, well, we’re going to take them on,” Sanders told reporters in the Capitol. “To use it as a political football is unacceptable. And are there folks who may be inclined to do that? Yes.”
— Bernie Becker, Cameron Joseph and Kristina Wong contributed.