By Russell Berman - 05/30/14 06:00 AM EDT
It’s not that House Republican leaders think Eric Shinseki is doing a good job as secretary of the scandal-ridden Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s that they think his ouster could give President Obama an easy way out of a widening crisis.
Over the last several days, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have resisted an increasingly bipartisan chorus of calls for Shinseki’s resignation following reports of concealed waiting lists and preventable patient deaths at VA healthcare facilities.
Their position has been noteworthy, particularly as Shinseki has lost support among even Democratic stalwarts like Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), the party’s campaign chief and a confidante of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
While Boehner said last week he is “getting closer” to calling for Shinseki to step down, he has argued that the secretary’s ouster would follow a predictable pattern of political scandals: anger grows, a top official gets the boot, the administration can say it took action, and public attention would quickly dissipate.
“I don’t want people to get confused about what the shiny ball is,” Boehner said last week. “The shiny ball is the systemic failure of this agency.”
Shinseki’s departure, he has also suggested, would only lead to a lengthy search for a replacement and a potentially contentious confirmation process in a Senate consumed by election-year politics.
The Speaker stuck to his position on Thursday after the release of an inspector general’s report that backed up allegations that officials at a VA facility in Phoenix concealed lengthy waiting lists for veterans seeking care.
“I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki,” Boehner said. “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’s really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no.”
Boehner does not have a close personal relationship with Shinseki and hasn’t spoken with him in recent days, an aide said. And he hasn’t been shy about calling for the resignation of Obama Cabinet officials in the past. In 2010, Boehner called for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to resign, only to spend the next two years negotiating budget agreements with him as Speaker.
Both he and Cantor instead sought to put the onus on Obama to take responsibility for the failures at the VA.
“Accountability for this starts at the very top,” Cantor said at a separate press conference Thursday. “Senior appointed leaders and the Cabinet and agencies all report to President Obama. It’s time the president specifically address what he plans to do to fix this problem now.”
Cantor acknowledged that a lot of attention had focused on Shinseki’s status, but he declined to offer his own judgment.
“It’s beyond clear that the VA has not performed up to anyone’s standards under his stewardship, but we must remember this is about more than one man,” he said. “This is about millions of veterans, and they deserve more accountability than one resignation.”
He urged the Senate to take up House legislation that would actually empower Shinseki to fire senior civil servants who were failing in their jobs.
“Whether it’s one resignation or 100 resignations that are necessary, we cannot keep waiting for action,” Cantor said.
Other senior Republicans have said Shinseki must go, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and the third-ranking House Republican, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
The Veterans Affairs Committee chairman in the House, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), said Thursday that while the problems at the department were deeply ingrained within its bureaucracy, the secretary needed to go anyway.
“You know what? It matters. It sends a clear signal,” he said of Shinseki’s departure. “If you can’t do the job, you’ve got to go.”
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney declined to give Shinseki a ringing endorsement, saying that while the president thought he performed “overall well,” he was awaiting the findings of an investigation being led by Rob Nabors, deputy chief of staff.
“When it comes to the current situation, the inquiries and the investigations and some of the allegations, the president wants to see the results of these reports,” Carney said. “And he, as you know, made clear that he believes there ought to be accountability once we establish all the facts.”
As Boehner suggested, the calls both for Shinseki and other top officials at the VA to resign raised the question of just who would be around to turn around the department in the coming months.
Miller acknowledged the risk of a “vacuum,” but he said it was already a reality.
“There’s already a vacuum at the top. It’s already there,” Miller said. “That vacuum goes all the way up to the White House. But if we don’t do something today — something substantive, not just another report, not just another hearing. We have an opportunity now to transform the way VA does business, in a way that brings it from a World War II mentality to a 21st century mentality.”