If Eric Shinseki goes, then what?
By: Philip Ewing
May 29, 2014 05:10 PM EDT
A grim consensus is building in Washington: Don’t stand too close to Eric Shinseki.
The Veterans Affairs secretary got another tepid vote of confidence on Thursday from the White House, but with nonstop VA scandal coverage on cable news and ever more calls for the retired four-star Army general to step down, there’s a clear sense that the VA could be close to a transition.
White House press secretary Jay Carney did not telegraph any sense of urgency on Thursday in briefing reporters about the situation. President Barack Obama wants to give Shinseki and his team more time to show they can get a handle on the situation at VA hospitals around the country, Carney said. A preliminary report found systemic problems, including making veterans endure lengthy waits for care.
And as more members of Congress call for Shinseki to go, including Obama’s own Democratic allies, there seems to be no clear sense about who could replace him.
The growing magnitude of the VA scandal means the post might be one of the least appealing in Washington. It would require a punishing confirmation hearing to take on a notoriously dysfunctional agency under a national microscope — in a lame-duck administration.
That makes one immediate possibility elevating VA’s deputy secretary, Sloan Gibson, who has only been on the job since his Senate confirmation in February.
Gibson is a West Point graduate, former Army infantry officer and the former CEO of the United Service Organizations — the USO of troop concerts and airport lounges, among its other efforts — so he has the right background for the job.
Avoiding a potentially tough confirmation, the White House could even ask Gibson to stay on as acting secretary.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who was deeply critical of the agency at a Wednesday night hearing and has said Shinseki should resign, would not name a potential successor on Thursday. But he did offer a prediction.
“They are not going to get a honeymoon,” he said.
The problems at the VA have been festering for years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations and congressional majorities. A new secretary wouldn’t be able to just flip a switch and fix them. For now, administration allies seem to just want Obama to take the first step, to signal the White House’s seriousness about the problems.
“The controversy over Gen. Shinseki’s leadership has taken attention away from the real issue — the need for swift, decisive action to reform the VA, change its culture, and ensure that we provide quality, timely services for our veterans,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
Shinseki has served “with distinction,” Warner said, “I now believe he should step aside in order to allow our focus and our efforts to be on making the critically needed changes to fix the VA.”
Veterans service organizations contacted by POLITICO on Thursday said they are watching the VA storyline play out but they have not yet taken positions about a potential new secretary for the department.
One group, the Military Officers Association of America, called earlier this month for Obama to appoint an independent, high-level commission to look at the VA system and make recommendations from outside its bureaucracy.
“We must act now to understand the challenges that lie ahead so that the VA is prepared for the long-term needs of the millions of veterans who have served our nation during the last 12 years of war,” said MOAA’s president, retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan.