WASHINGTON — Confidence in Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki disintegrated further Thursday on Capitol Hill, where a rising chorus of lawmakers in both parties said he should resign and let new leadership address systemic problems at VA medical centers.
The disapproval was most potent in the Senate because the chamber would have to confirm a new secretary if Shinseki resigns.
Support among President Obama's Democratic allies dwindled throughout the day as five additional Democrats — Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon — joined five of their Democratic colleagues in calling for his resignation.
Of the ten Democrats so far opposing Shinseki, eight are facing re-election this November. Eleven Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, have also called for his resignation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday stopped short of saying whether the president continues to have full confidence in his secretary. Obama could meet as early as Friday with Shinseki to discuss the preliminary findings of the VA investigation.
"The president's focused first and foremost on the need to address the problems that have impeded the quality and speed of care and benefits that our veterans have been receiving," Carney said. "He is also committed to making sure that people are held accountable if it is established that there was misconduct or mismanagement. But we can take action on the former while we await assessments on the latter."
Shinseki, however, found unlikely allies in the GOP-controlled House, where House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., held back. "The question I ask myself is, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what's really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no," Boehner said Thursday.
House Republicans have either passed or are readying a number of bills to address the VA crisis. The Senate has resisted their efforts, but Wednesday's interim report from the VA inspector general outlining delays in care for thousands of veterans may have shifted momentum in Congress to act more quickly.
The Senate is in recess and will not return until next week. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said when the Senate returns the Veterans Affairs Committee "will immediately work on the appropriate legislation to address these deeply rooted problems."
House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said his panel is readying legislation to make it easier for veterans to seek treatment at private health care facilities if they have been waiting longer than 30 days at a VA facility.
The VA announced on its own over the weekend that it would expand care to private facilities, but Miller said the bill would codify it.
The House has already voted to freeze bonuses for senior executives at the VA for five years. The director of the Phoenix VA received an $8,500 bonus in April while the center was under an open IG investigation.
Last week, the House passed with bipartisan support a bill to make it easier for the VA secretary to fire senior executives. At a press event with veterans' groups on Thursday, GOP lawmakers called on the Senate to pass the bill when it returns.
What the VA is unlikely to get is more federal funding. Citing regular, annual increases for the VA budget, Miller said: "I believe that if money would have solved the problem, it would have been fixed a long time ago."
Last month, the House passed an annual spending bills that included a $1.5 billion increase to $64.7 billion for fiscal year 2015 to fund veterans' programs.
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