Vulnerable Democrats Won't Forsake VA Chief, But Grimes Wants Him Out

WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes may be calling for Eric Shinseki's ouster amid the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, but fellow Democrats in tough reelection battles are taking a more cautious approach toward the embattled VA secretary.

Grimes became the first Senate Democratic candidate to call on Shinseki to resign on Thursday, as his department faces allegations of possible misconduct at 26 facilities across the country. As many as 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment at a VA hospital in Phoenix, where staff has been accused of cooking the books to cover up long wait times.

"We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract," Grimes said in a statement. "I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place."

But several incumbent Democrats approached by The Huffington Post weren't willing to throw Shinseki under the bus just yet, saying they would rather await the results of an investigation into the VA's activities.

"What I have said is that I think we need the investigation to go forward and that whoever is responsible for what has happened -- if the report substantiates the allegations then they should be held accountable," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) acknowledged the need for accountability within the VA, but stopped short of calling for Shinseki's resignation.

"I think he needs to be held accountable and his people need to be held accountable," Begich said. "I think there are some huge issues in the VA."

He was quick to add that Alaska faced similar problems at the VA five years ago and touted his state's success in resolving the issue.

"We worked directly on it," Begich said. "We've lowered our wait list. We've lowered our wait time."

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told reporters Shinseki should not resign. "He should fix the problem immediately," she said.

Sen. Kay Hagan's office provided a statement on her behalf, in which the North Carolina Democrat reiterated her commitment to veterans in her state while taking no direct position on whether Shinseki should continue in his role.

"It is critical that the leadership of the VA retains the trust and confidence of the veterans that it serves," Hagan said. "Reports of improper scheduling practices that have resulted in life-threatening delays for our veterans are completely unacceptable, and there must be a full investigation to immediately determine the extent of the problem and hold accountable those responsible, no matter who it is."

Hagan added that she is directly monitoring investigations into the Durham clinic, and said it was at her urging that additional staff was dispatched to address the backlog of disability claims at the Winston-Salem Regional Office.

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Udall pointed to a letter the Colorado Democrat penned to Shinseki last week. In it, Udall urged the VA secretary to address the problems at the VA and personally visit the department's facilities in Colorado, citing problems with the construction of a VA medical center in Aurora and accusations that officials at a Fort Collins VA facility manipulated data to conceal patient wait times.

"Mr. Secretary, your experience as a senior military leader makes you ideally suited to resolve many of the challenges currently facing VA," Udall wrote. "Unfortunately, given evidence of mismanagement on multiple fronts in Colorado and across the nation, it appears that you have either been shielded from the realities on the ground or have decided to keep your distance from critical issues and delegate site visits to others. In either case, the VA is suffering from an absence of public leadership and is foundering as a result."

A spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) did not immediately return a request for comment.

A growing number of Republicans are calling for Shinseki's removal and blaming President Barack Obama and Democrats for the problems plaguing the VA. Obama stood by Shinseki in his first public statement on the matter Wednesday.

"Nobody cares about our veterans more than Rick Shinseki," Obama said. "He has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We're going to work with him to solve the problem."

Vulnerable Senate Democrats are thus in a tough spot. Seeking Shinseki's resignation under the circumstances might just add fuel to the GOP's claims that the White House is mishandling the situation or that the administration is in some way responsible.

Grimes, on the other hand, has repeatedly sought to distance herself from Obama, even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has tried to tie her to the president and is effectively running an anti-Obama campaign in Kentucky.

McConnell questioned Obama's knowledge of the VA controversy in a scathing Senate floor speech Thursday, but he has stopped short of calling on Shinseki to step down. Asked directly by Fox News on Monday if Shinseki should go, McConnell demurred.

"Look, it is a management problem, not a money problem," he said. "So it's obvious that the management team needs to be changed in order to address this problem."

The only Republican leader in Congress to call on Shinseki to resign is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who made the announcement Thursday to Politico.

UPDATE: May 23 -- Michelle Nunn, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, joined Grimes in calling for Shinseki's resignation, issuing a statement Friday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"There is growing evidence that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs new leadership in order to reform its badly broken bureaucracy," Nunn said.

Nunn, like Grimes, faces an uphill battle to the Senate in a deeply conservative state. A pair of House Democrats from Georgia, Reps. David Scott and John Barrow, have also called for Shinseki's resignation.

Natalie Tennant, the Democratic Senate candidate in West Virginia, also joined the chorus on Friday.

"It's clear General Shinseki has become a distraction from the mission of the VA," Tennant said in a statement. "New leadership is needed to earn back the trust and confidence of veterans and military families that the VA can deliver answers and find solutions to fix the broken system."

Tennant currently serves as West Virginia's secretary of state and is running against GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Tennant's statement comes a day after Capito said Shinseki should resign.

Incumbent Democrats in the upper chamber have yet to budge, but New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown (R) has been ramping up pressure on Shaheen to break from Obama and ask for Shinseki to step down. Brown has already said the VA secretary should resign.



113th Congress Facts