Updated 8:52 a.m. Friday, May 30
It didn't take long after a damning report Wednesday for insiders to engage in a time-honored tradition of Washington politics on Thursday: abandoning a sinking ship.
Amid a high-profile scandal over patient wait times at health care facilities, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki looks to be losing the battle to keep his job. Last week, President Barack Obama offered up a halfhearted defense of his Cabinet official as dozens of Republicans called for his head. A week later, a White House official said Shinseki's position is now far more precarious. This week's inspector general report opened the floodgates for vulnerable Democrats looking to publicly break with an unpopular President in the doldrums of the second term. Now at least 10 Senate Democrats and 20 House Democrats, along with a host of candidates across the country, are calling for Shinseki to go, numbers certain to grow in the coming days and weeks.
"Look, I have tremendous respect for the general, for his service to his country, to his four stars. But if it's going to take his resignation to turn over a new leaf at the VA … then, yes, then he should resign," Representative Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign committee, said Thursday on CNN.
"The inspector general's preliminary report makes it clear that the systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed. Secretary Shinseki must step down," Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado said on Wednesday. "We need new leadership who will demand accountability to fix these problems and ensure the VA is providing Coloradans the services they've earned."
The Republican National Committee has already launched robocalls against Democrats hitting on the VA scandal, while GOP congressional campaign committees pile on vulnerable lawmakers. It was a sign of just how worried Democrats are about the political blowback in an election year that Israel added his name to the list of lawmakers calling on Shinseki to be replaced.
Shinseki defended himself in a USA Today op-ed Thursday, writing that “we are doing all we can to accelerate access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside."
Obama is set to meet with Shinseki Friday morning, according to the President's public schedule.
Just how long Shinseki stays now depends on how long congressional discipline holds and how great the White House's appetite for punishment is. Obama has long been wary of parting with senior officials, even — and in some ways especially — when they become political lightning rods. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was kept around after the rollout of the troubled HealthCare.gov website, only announcing her resignation earlier this year at the end of a six-month enrollment period. Often, it's in an Administration's interest to leave the vulnerable official in place to absorb the brunt of criticism until the full scale of the problem is known, at which point a successor can be brought in to turn the page.
The report Wednesday found that 1,700 veterans were found to be waiting for an appointment to the VA's Phoenix Health Care System without their information being included in an established electronic waitlist. The inspector general said more work would be needed to determine the motivation of VA employees involved, as well as whether any veterans died as a result of delays.
Wednesday's report was only preliminary — and from a single health system. The inspector general is probing 41 more facilities, while a senior Obama aide has been dispatched to the VA to launch an even broader review of how the agency treats the nation's retired service members.
"If he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve," Obama told reporters last week.
On Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough briefed Obama on the report. "The President found the findings extremely troubling," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
By Thursday, Carney was unwilling to say whether Obama still has confidence in Shinseki's ability to lead the department, suggesting Shinseki's fate would be determined after his forthcoming review.
"I think that the President identified last week that he expected a preliminary report from Secretary Shinseki's internal audit very soon, and when he receives that he'll be able to evaluate those findings along with what we've seen from the interim report from the inspector general, and then assess where we are at that time," Carney said.
Lawmakers on both sides and the White House acknowledge that firing Shinseki would not solve the longstanding problems at the VA by itself. But that simple fact won't save him, either.