Obama facing political storm on VA sites

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WASHINGTON -- The White House fought Tuesday to contain growing political furor over allegations of misconduct at the nation's veterans hospitals, as Republicans -- eager to use the issue in the midterm elections -- seized on the reports as new evidence that President Barack Obama is unable to govern effectively.

Rob Nabors, the president's deputy chief of staff, will fly today to the veterans medical facility in Phoenix to assess the most damning reports -- that government workers falsified data or created secret waiting lists to hide the long delays veterans faced before seeing doctors.

The president is also dispatching chief of staff Denis McDonough to Capitol Hill today to consult with Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.

Lawmakers are working on bipartisan legislation that would give veterans officials greater authority to fire those responsible at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House is expected to vote today on such a bill, and the Senate is expected to hold hearings on the legislation soon.

Inside the White House, officials said there was no political panic, but the issue was of serious, substantive concern -- unlike, the officials said, a previous GOP uproar over extra scrutiny given to Tea Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service.

White House officials described Mr. Obama as eager for the results of an investigation into the allegations by the VA's inspector general and a separate review of hospital practices being conducted by Mr. Nabors and department Secretary Eric Shinseki. White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say when Mr. Obama might address the situation again publicly.

"He is not at all pleased with some of the allegations and will be extremely unhappy if some of them prove to be true," Mr. Carney said.

Republican lawmakers intensified their criticism of Mr. Obama, and some made clear that they intended to use the veterans hospital incidents as fodder for a broader political theme about incompetence in Mr. Obama's administration.

"The election of President Obama ushered in a new era of big government and, with it, a renewed flurry of mismanagement," California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP whip, said in a statement. "If the president truly did not know about these scandals and mistakes, we should doubt his ability to properly manage the leviathan government that he helped create."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters Tuesday that Mr. Obama had not acted swiftly enough, adding, "It is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight."

The increasing reports of misconduct at numerous veterans hospitals other than Phoenix in recent weeks have prompted outrage among members of both parties who are demanding swift action. On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., repeated a call for the FBI to pursue criminal violations.

"People are fed up and impatient," he said in an interview. "So am I."

The incidents have also generated a new round of condemnation from the president's liberal pop-culture allies, an indication that anger about the allegations has moved beyond the halls of Congress. On Monday, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart mocked the president's top officials, including Mr. Shinseki, for what he called tepid expressions of outrage and anger in recent days.

Reacting to Mr. Shinseki's declaration that he was "mad as hell" about the allegations, Mr. Stewart said, "Your 'mad as hell' face looks a lot like your, 'Oh, we're out of orange juice' face."

As a candidate for president, Mr. Obama denounced delays and poor care for veterans at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed that his administration would address the backlogs and greatly improve care. He pledged in a 2008 campaign speech to build "a 21st-century VA" and to confront what he called "the broken bureaucracy of the VA."

But more than five years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has once again found himself exposed to political danger by a bureaucracy that seems beyond his immediate control.

In responding to the allegations of veterans hospital delays, the Obama White House has embraced what has become a familiar public relations pattern in dealing with political crises: Administration officials declare their outrage but urge patience while an inquiry is completed.

The White House has also borrowed a page from its response to the debacle of the rollout of HealthCare.gov this past fall, when Mr. Obama sent a top aide to help repair the health care website and impose management discipline. By sending Mr. Nabors to assist Mr. Shinseki in his review, the White House is installing one of its own operatives to provide a direct pipeline of information to Mr. Obama.

So far, White House officials have waved aside calls for Mr. Shinseki to resign in much the same way they rejected calls for the resignation of then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the botched health care rollout. Mr. Carney said Monday that the president still "has confidence" in Mr. Shinseki.

Mr. Carney said the White House was supportive of the goals of the legislation likely to get a vote today in the House. The bill already has more than a half-dozen Democratic co-sponsors, including outspoken liberals such as Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, and may pass overwhelmingly.


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