The House on Wednesday approved a bill empowering top Veterans Affairs officials embattled in scandal to start sending pink slips.
The bill passed as expected with bipartisan support in a 390-33 vote, granting VA Secretary Eric Shinseki the authority to fire career public employees in efforts to aggressively hold officials accountable for any unearthed misconduct. Republicans unanimously approved the bill while 33 Democrats voted against it.
In the face of growing political outrage, President Obama forcefully expressed his frustration before the American public Wednesday, saying he would not tolerate a scandal and that if the allegations were proven true, he would not hesitate to punish those involved.
The stern warning was meant for Shinseki, too. Though the president resisted calls for his VA chief to resign, Obama offered only a tepid endorsement of the retired four-star Army general’s response to the allegations.
“I said it to him today, 'I want to see what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability,'” Obama said. “We’re going to work with him to solve the problem. But I am going to make sure there is accountability.”
Obama’s press conference Wednesday marked the first time he has formally addressed the issue since news reports began bubbling up with claims that VA hospital facilities in Phoenix, Ariz., were hiding excessively long wait times for primary health care by keeping two sets of books. Whistleblowers allege that as many as 40 veteran deaths can be linked to the delays in care.
Three officials in Arizona were the first to go; Shinseki placed them on administrative leave throughout the ongoing investigation. Next came Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel, who had already announced plans to retire the year before.
Now, it’s Shinseki who has the target on his back. with growing political furor. The typically non-partisan American Legion, the largest veterans group in the United States, became the first to forcefully demand Shinseki’s resignation.
Signalling that the White House will respond aggressively to the controversy, President Obama dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to travel to Phoenix, where more than 23 facilities are being investigated. Nabors’ boss, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to assure them of the White House’s commitment to solving the problems plaguing the VA.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period,” Obama said.
Shinseki is expected to return to Capitol Hill once again Thursday to brief lawmakers on the latest in the scandal. That same day, the Senate Appropriations Committee will mark-up legislation on VA funding, scrutinizing department officials' salaries and bonuses.
Georgia Reps. John Barrow and David Scott became the first Democrats Wednesday to demand Shinseki’s resignation, heightening the pressure on the White House to maintain a tough response.
Republicans critical of how long it took for President Obama to hold a press conference on the matter, however, said his words were not enough.
“His remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans’ health care system,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement Wednesday.