House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested Thursday that allegations of cooked books at the Veterans Affairs Department could rise to the level of criminal misconduct.
President Obama has vowed to punish any wrongdoing in the face of allegations that some in the VA devised secret lists to hide the number of veterans left untreated beyond the agency's 14-day goal. Dozens of veterans have died while allegedly awaiting care, and the administration has launched a pair of probes into the scandal.
"None of us could be satisfied with how you could immediately address some of these concerns," she said. "[But] you have to address them; you have to correct them; and you have to take action, and some of that action might be in the courts.
"This is deadly serious," she added.
Pelosi emphasized the importance of having an "evidence-based" process, but vowed that "there must and will be accountability" for anyone found of wrongdoing.
"That behavior will not be tolerated," she said.
She's not alone in suggesting the alleged misconduct might be criminal. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has urged VA Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric ShinsekiDems, GOP battle over pace of Trump confirmations Report: Trump considering two health CEOs to lead VA Trump considering Navy Adm. Michelle Howard to run VA: report MORE to call in the FBI to investigate.
Several conservative Democrats have joined the growing chorus of Republicans in calling for Shinseki's resignation. Pelosi on Thursday at once defended the four-star general and questioned whether replacing the VA secretary would solve agency problems she characterized as "intrinsic" to the system.
"Just changing people at the top may appear to represent change, but it's the culture, it's the system, and it's the challenge that they face," she said.
The minority leader called for systemic reforms in the way veterans receive services, urging lawmakers in both parties to "think in a bigger way" about how to address veterans' needs. She did not offer details.
"Maybe we should look at the VA, instead of thinking incrementally, to think entrepreneurially [about how to] ... get care extramurally outside of the walls of the VA," she said. "The incremental approach doesn't work when you get 2 million more vets over the past five years. The absorptive capacity is almost impossible."
The VA scandal has erupted into an enormous political liability for the White House, feeding directly into long-held GOP narratives that the government can't be trusted to do good work and that Obama is a poor manager whose administration is in disarray.
"The White House keeps talking about its efforts to increase VA funding, but where’s the accountability?" Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked Thursday.
Pelosi pushed back against those criticisms, characterizing Obama as a policymaker who's always made veterans a top priority. She suggested the president is a victim of inheriting a VA system that's been overwhelmed by an influx of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Now he's commander in chief; now he sees the ramifications of some seeds that were sown a long time ago," she said.
Pelosi cited a report indicating the services provided to veterans of the war on terror will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars in coming decades and wondered aloud why those costs weren't considered as Congress green-lighted the war in Iraq.
"Maybe, when we go into war, we should be thinking about its consequences and its ramifications," she said. "You would think that would be a given. But maybe it wasn't."