WASHINGTON (AP) — The growing furor over veterans' health care moved to political campaigns Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired.
Among those calling for Shinseki's removal amid investigations of VA patients dying while awaiting treatment and falsified appointment records was Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Democrat Rick Weiland, who is running for South Dakota's open Senate seat, also called for Shinseki's ouster, as did a Democrat running for an open House seat in New Jersey and two Republicans challenging vulnerable Democrats in northern Minnesota House districts.
"We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract," Grimes said in a statement Thursday. "I don't see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place."
Grimes has tried to distance herself at times from President Barack Obama, who is largely unpopular in her state, and she demonstrated her independence by calling for a cabinet member's removal.
McConnell said earlier this week that the predicament at the VA was "a management problem, not a moneyproblem," adding, "it's obvious that the management team needs to be changed."
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said the campaign was pleased Grimes had joined in calling for a change in VA management. Moore criticized Senate Democrats for blocking a House-passed bill that would have made it easier to fire or demote senior VA executives.
Senate Democrats said they are working on their own legislation to make it easier to fire or demote executives at VA.
"I think what the House has done is not unreasonable," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday, adding that he is confident the Senate will act quickly on a measure being pushed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The political maneuvering came as the Senate Appropriations Committee added language to a military construction spending bill that echoed the House bill. Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, co-sponsored a bill to give the VA secretary broader authority to remove low-performing senior executives.
"The veterans are not getting the medical care, the treatment that they need," said Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Some heads need to roll."
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said Thursday the Obama administration supports the goal of the House bill, but added, "We do have some concerns that some provisions could result in significant litigation which would divert valuable time and resources from VA's accountability efforts and its core mission of delivering quality services to our veterans."
The administration is working with Congress on better language, Carney told reporters.
After weeks of criticism for his detached response, Obama showed new resolve this week on the growing crisis over veterans' health care.
Obama called Shinseki to a White House meeting Wednesday and then repeatedly vowed to take action at a news conference at the White House. Obama also dispatched a senior aide, deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, to Phoenix to meet with staff at the hospital that is at the center of allegations of treatment delays and falsified reports at VA medical facilities.
Obama had remained publicly silent on the veterans issue for three weeks, even as he assigned Nabors to oversee a review of VA health care and sent chief of staff Denis McDonough to Capitol Hill to reassure anxious lawmakers.
The inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department says 26 VA facilities are being investigated nationwide, including the Phoenix hospital. That facility faces allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and that the staff there kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
The current director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave while the VA's inspector general investigates claims raised by several former VA employees.
In the South Dakota Senate campaign, Weiland forcefully called for Shinseki to step down. But he also criticized House Republicans for temporarily shutting down much of the government last year.
"Anyone who does not understand that it is the penny-pinching stupidity and arrogance of the 'shut it down' politicians in Congress that is the real problem is either blind or willfully ignorant," Weiland said in a statement Thursday.
Among the Republicans calling for Shinseki's resignation is Mike McFadden, who hopes to take on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.