Sen. Thune: No Sign Obama Understands Depth of VA Scandal
Thursday, May 22, 2014 04:11 PM
By: Sean Piccoli
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 Veterans Affairs Department was under-reporting wait times for its patients, The Washington Times reports.
"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 health care 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."
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 hopitals tried to hide the caseload by drafting phony waiting lists.
"I don't think the dimensions of the problems they fully grasp just yet," Thune said of the White House's inner circle.
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 engage by supporting two pieces of legislation: Thune's bill for an independent VA probe and another one making it easier to fire any VA officials found to be involved in the scandal.
The latter bill passed overwhelmingly in the House on Wednesday with 390 votes. It was opposed by 33 House members, all Democrats.
Thune said, however, he is not optimistic that his bill, or a Senate version of the House-passed VA Management Accountability Act, will even get to be debated in his chamber 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," said Thune.
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.
As for the former Senate Democrat in the White House, Thune said the VA mess reminds him of Obama's seemingly detached handling of other administration scandals, including the IRS's 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, 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."