Senate Dems close ranks behind Shinseki

Senate Democrats are closing ranks behind Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama’s decision to keep him in the Cabinet despite Republican calls for his ouster. 

As of Thursday afternoon, not a single Democratic senator had called for Shinseki's resignation.

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And Senate Democrats have been slow to embrace House-passed legislation that would give Shinseki the authority to fire senior executives.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) questioned whether legislation could address the VA’s problems, noting “most of it has to be done administratively.”

Senate leaders also expressed support for the Cabinet member on Thursday.

“I think he’s doing a thorough review, as he should, of VA medical centers on the scheduling issue,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).

Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, plans to release his own report on allegations that VA facilities concealed the wait times for veterans seeking medical treatment. Critics say that dozens of veterans may have died while waiting for treatment.

Pressure has built this week on the White House to take action on the VA controversy, and calls from Democrats for Shinseki’s head have emerged.

But only a few Democrats have joined Republicans in demanding his ouster so far.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and two conservative House Democrats from Georgia, John Barrow and David Scott, have called for him to step down. 

“Members will keep a close eye on what the investigations bring forward, but right now he has strong support within the caucus,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Shinseki’s support on Capitol Hill could quickly evaporate if investigators find he had knowledge of efforts to deceive veterans. 

Vulnerable Senate Democrats said any VA officials found responsible for misleading veterans should be fired.

“Reports of improper scheduling practices that have resulted in life-threatening delays for our veterans are completely unacceptable, and there must be a full investigation to immediately determine the extent of the problem and hold accountable those responsible, no matter who it is,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), who has a competitive race in Oregon, said, “It's a huge problem, huge problem. We have to get to the bottom of who's responsible. Whoever's responsible should lose their jobs.”

But Schumer, the Democrats’ chief political strategist, voiced a confident note in arguing the scandal would not hurt Democrats in the midterm elections.

“The president is taking decisive action,” he said. 

House and Senate Republicans have sought to seize on the controversy to damage the White House.

The House GOP contrasted their action in passing a VA bill on Wednesday with what they said was inaction by Obama. The legislation would eliminate the ability of government employees to appeal firings and demotions.

The bill was approved overwhelmingly by the House and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed it, though most of her leadership team did not.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), who was one of 33 Democrats to vote against the bill, warned it could undermine federal workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the House legislation “not unreasonable” but said he wants to wait for Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to work on his own bill.

He promised not to let the issue drag on for “a long time.”

“I would hope this is one thing that Senate Republicans would not hold up,” he said.

Durbin said he was satisfied with Shinseki’s responses after meeting with him privately Thursday to discuss reports that a VA facility in Illinois used a secret list to mislead patients about the waiting time for treatment.

“He’s called in the inspector generals, he called in the criminal inspector generals, and he really wants to get the bottom of it quickly. He’s very frank about it. He’s not assuming anything,” said Durbin, who wants Shinseki to make a report to Congress on his findings as soon as possible.