Calling deadly treatment delays and falsified waiting lists at veterans hospitals "a national embarrassment," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota told Newsmax TV on Thursday that President Barack Obama hasn't shown he even comprehends the scale of the problem or the urgency needed to fix it.
The Obama transition team learned in 2008 that the Department of Veterans Affairs was under-reporting wait times for its patients, The Washington Times
"The president should have been leading the charge to fix this problem and he's been, as usual, you know, following along," Thune said during an extended, two-part interview on "America's Forum" with hosts J.D. Hayworth and John Bachman.
He has introduced a Senate bill to launch an independent investigation into the VA scandal.
By contrast, Thune said, the White House response so far has amounted to the president "talking tough"
at a press conference on Wednesday and dispatching one aide to a troubled VA facility.
"When they had the problems with the healthcare Web site rollout, they said, 'We've got all hands on the deck,'" he said. "They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try and fix it. And they ought to treat this issue with the same seriousness. This is the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line, who risk everything for us, and they deserve a much more serious response than what they're getting from their commander-in-chief."
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Outrage is growing over delays in treatment so severe that veterans have died waiting to receive doctor's appointments, and revelations that officials at backlogged VA hospitals tried to hide the caseload by drafting phony waiting lists.
Thune said he doesn't think White House insiders "fully grasp" the "dimensions of the problems" yet.
With some Democrats in Congress now joining the chorus of calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki to resign, Thune said Obama needs to "clean house" at the VA and not wait for media reports to prod him into acting.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has said the president first learned of the hospital delays and cover-ups from a newscast.
Thune urged the president to be better engaged by supporting two pieces of legislation: Thune's bill for an independent VA probe, and a second bill that would make it easier for Shinseki to fire senior VA officials found to be involved in the scandal.
The second bill was blocked by Senate Democrats on Thursday, according to the Washington Times,
although it was passed overwhelmingly in the House on Wednesday in a bipartisan vote with 390 members supporting it. It was opposed by 33 House members, all Democrats.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida brought the House-passed VA Management Accountability Act to the Senate floor on Thursday seeking its approval before Congress recesses, according to The Blaze.
"I've come to this floor here today to give my colleagues the opportunity to send this to the president before we leave for the Memorial Day recess," Rubio said, The Blaze reported. "We have an opportunity right now to take up the bill that the House just passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, enact it into law by unanimous consent, and send it to the president so he can sign it."
But Senate Democrats and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told Rubio he was moving too fast. Sanders said he'd hold a hearing on the bill when the Senate reconvenes in late June, The Blaze reported.
Rubio, House Speaker John Boehner, and other Republicans said the decision was clearly wrong because the Senate could have moved forward on the VA scandal just before Memorial Day.
Others said it was obviously a politically motivated.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he was "surprised to see the Senate Democrats block this important, bipartisan bill," according to the Washington Times report. "There's no reason for us not to pass it quickly here in the Senate."
In his Newsmax interview earlier Thursday, Thune predicted that neither his bill nor the Senate version of the House-passed bill — the legislation blocked Thursday afternoon — would get to be debated in the Senate because the Democrats in the majority are allied with public employee unions like those representing VA hospital workers.
But he said public pressure on Senate Democrats could help force a vote.
In the House, two members from Georgia became the first Democrats to demand that Shinseki resign. One, Rep. David Scott, gave an emotional floor speech denouncing VA officials for dishonesty.
"What that tells me is that some Democrats are starting to feel the heat," Thune said.
Thune hopes some of his Senate colleagues across the aisle will start to find their voices on this issue.
"At least here in the Senate, you know, [Majority Leader] Harry Reid has become a foil for the president on so many issues that the president doesn't want to be exposed on or doesn't want to take the heat on. And so it's going to take individual, Democrat-elected officials in the Congress — in the Senate — to really start weighing in, not only privately but publicly."
Thune expressed disappointment that anyone would need to be lobbied to act in this matter.
"You would think that in the interest of America's veterans that we could put the politics aside and recognize that some issues transcend the favored political constituencies of the Democrats here in Washington, and that we ought to be able to get some action," he said.
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As for the president, Thune said the VA mess reminds him of Obama's seemingly detached handling of other administration scandals, including the IRS' targeting of conservative PACs. He suggested Obama's hands-off and disengaged style "comes from not having any experience" as a manager.
"The president was in over his head to begin with when it came to running a country with as many complexities as we have," said Thune.
Asked whether Obama has behaved more like an observer-in-chief, or a bystander to a scandal within his own administration, Thune said, "You sure can't say that he's playing the role of commander in chief."
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