As the spiraling scandal over falsified wait times at VA centers around the country grows, several Republicans told Newsmax that one thing is clear: Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is on his way out.
"His days are numbered, but the important thing is that the leadership at the department fix this issue," Florida Rep. David Jolly said in an interview. "If that means Shinseki stays in place for a little while longer to fix this, I'm OK with this.
"If he stays in a little while longer and nothing's fixed, I'll say, 'Yes, it's time to go,'" added Jolly, a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee who was sworn in to Congress in March to fill the unexpired term of the late Rep. Bill Young.
"Politically speaking, the reality is I think his days are numbered, but honestly, for every hour he remains on the job, I hope he uses it to fix the problem," Jolly said.
Jolly may be right. President Barack Obama on Friday morning summoned the embattled Shinseki to the White House for what he had said in earlier interviews would be a "serious conversation" about whether he could fulfill his role as chief of Veterans Affairs.
Shinseki on Friday morning spoke before a homeless veterans' group, suggesting the past few weeks had been "challenging." He apologized to veterans for those families that suffered under his administration's lapses.
It's the first time he had spoken publicly since a scathing inspector general report was released. The report found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off official waiting lists.
The investigation found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling healthcare system, which provides medical care to more than 6 million veterans annually.
The retired four-star general received loud applause and a standing ovation when he stepped to the podium to address the group that advocates for homeless veterans
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Republicans, however, have increasingly called for Shinseki to resign, along with several dozen Democrats. California Rep. Jeff Denham echoed many GOP members calling for the retired four-star Army general to step down immediately.
"The buck stops with General Shinseki," he said in an interview. "It's time for new leadership.
"We have to rebuild the VA to make sure that our veterans are getting the care they need and deserve, but we've got to rebuild the faith and trust of the American public that the VA is going to be run correctly," Denham said.
The pair were among a growing number of Republicans speculating on Shinseki's future after a VA inspector general's report found "systemic" problems throughout the huge VA healthcare system.
The 35-page interim report
found that as many as 1,700 veterans who needed care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off the wait lists at the Phoenix Veterans' Administration Center. The report found that investigators had "substantiated serious conditions" at the facility.
The document confirmed allegations of excessive waiting time for care at the Arizona facility, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the wait list.
While Obama has said the report was "deeply troubling," he has resisted calls to oust Shinseki from the post that he appointed him to in 2009.
"The president's focused first and foremost on the need to address the problems that have emerged," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. "He is also committed to making sure that people are held accountable if it's established that there was mismanagement and misconduct."
Carney, however, waffled on whether Obama had full confidence
in Shinseki, saying only that the president was awaiting the results of an investigation into VA scandal before deciding who should be held accountable. The report could be received by the end of this week.
He added that the president believed that Shinseki has performed well overall.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also walked back his earlier support of Shinseki, saying that such decisions should be left to others within the administration.
"I'm not going to get into Gen. Shinseki's future," he told reporters. "I'll leave that to others."
For his part, Shinseki vowed to "set things straight" at the VA to "restore integrity to our processes to earn veterans' trust."
"I remain committed to providing the high-quality care and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve," he said in an op-ed piece
in USA Today. "And we will."
But more Democrats, including several facing tough re-election bids to the House or Senate this fall, have joined the GOP calls for Shinseki to resign. They include Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces two GOP challengers, and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who squares off against Republican Monica Wehby in November.
So far, 24 senators and 89 House members have called for Shinseki to step down, ABC News reports.
In the House, that includes 66 Republicans and 23 Democrats. In the Senate, 23 GOP members want Shinseki gone, along with 13 Democrats.
Top Republicans, meanwhile, charged that the ultimate responsibility for restoring the VA remained with President Obama, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that he remained unconvinced that Shinseki's ouster would solve the agency's problems.
"I'm going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki," Boehner said
at a news conference. "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 is really going on?' The answer is no."
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House Republican Conference, said that Shinseki was simply the face of the problem — not the cause of it.
"The leadership should be held accountable, the leadership at the VA as well as the president of the United States," she said in an afternoon conference call with reporters.
"Ultimately, General Shinseki works for the president, and we need to hold the leadership accountable.
"A typical Washington response, though, is to say, 'OK, we're going to dismiss this person and put in a different person,'" the Washington state legislator added. "We need to expose it and get a better handle on how deep this is.
"It may be a lot more than just one person who needs to be replaced. We're very suspicious that there are a lot of changes that need to be made at the VA," she said.
California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who was also on the call, noted that he demanded Shinseki's resignation last year because of other problems at the VA.
"The reality is that he's had six years. You give anybody six years, and you fail in your job — you're just not being let go because it looks good; you're being let go because you cannot do the job," he said.
"Gen. Shinseki has failed in his duty and broke the trust with the veterans in this country in the way he has managed and led the VA."
Still, the primary responsibility remained with Obama, Hunter said.
"In the end, it's the president's fault, plain and simple, because he is the top CEO. Ultimately, the failure and the broken trust lie with him."
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who headed the USO, would most likely succeed Shinseki.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he has known Gibson for years and praised his organizational skills — telling CNN
that he would support whoever Obama selected as long as the VA's problems were solved.
But he's only been on the job since February, Florida's Jolly noted, and that's another problem with Shinseki leaving right now.
"If all of the top leadership is gone, then we are left with the same bureaucratic establishment that doesn't answer to members of Congress, that refuses to answer to members of Congress — and they are entrenched in civil service positions.
"What is the better-case scenario? Does Shinseki stay and fix the problems, or does Shinseki go and the problems are never fixed?" he posed. "I'll take the former."
In the meantime, however, Republicans told Newsmax that they were focused on getting help to the 1,700 veterans mentioned in the VA inspector general's report.
McMorris Rodgers and Hunter said they backed legislation introduced by Miller, who also represents California, to allow veterans who have been waiting for treatment of at least 30 days to go to healthcare facilities outside the VA system at the agency's expense.
Hunter also said that the VA needed to concentrate on specific problems facing veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder or cancer stemming from the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
"It isn't rocket science," Hunter said in the conference call. "It's healthcare management.
"The VA is there to specialize in people who come back from specific, war-time duties. That's what the VA should be doing: treating those ailments that were caused by a specific time overseas in a certain place that your normal healthcare system does not cover."
"I'm demanding action first and answers second," Jolly told Newsmax. "Let's clear the wait list right now. That’s the problem we have to solve.
"The American people want the wait list solved. I think they can be patient on the answers on how we got here. That will take a long time.
"But the impatience by this member and the American people is why do we have a wait list? We have to fix that."
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