The White House fought Tuesday to contain the growing political firestorm over allegations of misconduct at veterans hospitals as Republicans, eager to use the issue in the midterm elections, seized on the reports as new evidence that President Barack Obama is unable to govern effectively.
Rob Nabors, the president’s deputy chief of staff, will fly today to the veterans medical facility in Phoenix to assess the most damning reports: that government workers falsified data or created secret waiting lists to hide the long delays veterans faced before seeing doctors.
The president is also dispatching Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, to Capitol Hill today to consult with the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
Lawmakers are working on bipartisan legislation that would give veterans officials greater authority to fire those responsible at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House is expected to vote today on a bill, and the Senate is expected to hold hearings on the legislation soon.
At the White House, officials said that there was no political panic but that the issue was of serious, substantive concern.
White House officials described Obama as eager for the results of an investigation into the allegations by the VA’s inspector general and a separate review of hospital practices being conducted by Nabors and Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the department.
Republican lawmakers made it clear they intended to use the incidents at the veterans hospitals as fodder for a broader political theme about incompetence in Obama’s administration.
“The election of President Obama ushered in a new era of big government and with it a renewed flurry of mismanagement,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican whip, said in a statement. “If the president truly did not know about these scandals and mistakes, we should doubt his ability to properly manage the leviathan government that he helped create.”
Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, told reporters Tuesday that Obama had not acted swiftly enough, adding that “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.”
The increasing reports of misconduct at numerous veterans hospitals other than Phoenix in recent weeks has prompted outrage among members of both parties demanding swift action. On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut repeated a call for the FBI to pursue criminal violations.
“People are fed up and impatient,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “So am I.”
As a candidate for president, Obama denounced delays and poor care for veterans at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed that his administration would address the backlogs and greatly improve care. He pledged in a 2008 campaign speech to build “a 21st-century VA” and to confront what he called “the broken bureaucracy of the VA.”
But more than five years into his presidency, Obama has once again found himself exposed to political danger by a bureaucracy that seems beyond his immediate control.
In responding to the allegations of delays at veterans hospitals, the Obama White House has embraced what has become a familiar public relations pattern in dealing with political crises: Administration officials declare their outrage as they urge patience while an investigation is completed.
The White House has also borrowed a page from its response to the debacle of the rollout of HealthCare.gov this past fall, when Obama sent a top aide to help repair the health care website and impose management discipline. By sending Nabors to assist Shinseki in his review, the White House is installing one of its own operatives to provide a direct pipeline of information to Obama.
White House officials have waved aside calls for Shinseki to resign in much the same way they rejected calls for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of health and human services, over the botched health care rollout. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the president still “has confidence” in Shinseki.
Carney said the White House supported the goals of legislation probably coming up for a vote today in the House. The bill has more than a half-dozen Democratic co-sponsors and is likely to pass overwhelmingly.
But passage of that legislation is not likely to stop Obama’s critics in Congress — especially Republicans — from seeking to use the allegations at the veterans hospitals to their political advantage ahead of this fall’s elections.
On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, criticized VA officials as failing to respond adequately to a subpoena in the case. Miller said the committee had requested emails and documents from two dozen officials and had received only 200 emails from one department employee.
“I am quickly getting the impression the department does not want to fully cooperate in this matter,” Miller said.
Several Democratic members said they feared that Republicans may be laying the groundwork for a push to privatize veterans’ health care and dismantle one of the largest bastions of government health care in the United States.
Sanders said he was willing to work with Republicans to improve health care in the system, but he warned against using the allegations as a political weapon.
“I am going to do everything I can to prevent VA health care from being politicized,” Sanders said.
“We are talking about the lives of 6.5 million men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend this country, who deserve to be treated with respect, not be made into a political football.”