Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked a bill designed to give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki more leeway to fire senior department executives he believes are responsible for long wait times and care problems at VA medical facilities.
The bill, which passed the House a day earlier on a bipartisan vote, was blocked by Democrats who said it was premature to call for firings, and that while problems in the department extend back for years, most veterans find the VA provides good care.
Immediately, the holdup became political.
“I was surprised to see Senate Democrats block this important, bipartisan bill. There’s no reason for us not to pass it quickly here in the Senate. And the President should call for its passage right away too,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
The VA scandal continues to develop in Washington with the department taking fire from all sides.
After VA officials didn’t show up for a House hearing, the Veterans Affairs’ Committee unanimously voted to prepare subpoenas to force them to appear on May 30, unless they voluntarily show up before that.
“Given the VA’s continued pattern of stonewalling, there is good cause for the committee to vote in favor of receiving this testimony in open session as soon as possible,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and committee chairman.
Some lawmakers said failing to appear before the committee is a “slap in the face” to service members, who drop whatever they are doing, even if its inconvenient, to deploy when the country needs protection.
Reports of secret wait lists and problems with veterans awaiting care continue to pour forth from facilities around the country, and Mr. Shinseki is increasingly under fire from both Democrats and Republicans.
On Thursday, Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat challenging Mr. McConnell in Kentucky’s Senate race this year, issued a statement calling for the secretary’s ouster.
“We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract. I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place,” she said.
But Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber, said firing Mr. Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself, wouldn’t solve the VA’s problems.
“It is easy to point fingers of blame and say if one person goes, that will solve the problem. It is more than that. It is an overwhelming challenge to a system, but a promise that we’ve made that it is going to work,” the Illinois Democrat told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
Even as his own job seems in jeopardy, lawmakers are pushing to give Mr. Shinseki power to fire others within his department.
While Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent, blocked the bill on the Senate floor, it appears likely to pass at some point. Indeed, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to give the VA secretary similar powers as part of a spending bill debate Thursday.