POLITICS: PennAve

Have lawmakers found their new Kathleen Sebelius in Eric Shinseki? Not exactly

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Politics,White House,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Senate,Veterans Affairs,National Security,PennAve,Kathleen Sebelius,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

The imminent departure of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has left lawmakers, particularly Republicans, without an Obama surrogate to publicly flog.

Enter Eric Shinseki.

The secretary of Veterans Affairs has almost overnight replaced Sebelius as the new fall guy for Obama, in this case over mismanagement of veterans' health care.

But, for various reasons, Shinseki is faring a little better. Unlike Sebelius, most elected lawmakers have resisted calling for his resignation for now.

Republicans seem to prefer pinning the problem on Obama, not Shinseki.

"It's time President Obama personally answer for the horrific conditions and abuses occurring at our veterans facilities,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on Thursday. “Secretary Shinseki should be held accountable for the failures of his department, but it is ultimately President Obama who must answer for what has occurred under his administration.”

Shinseki on Thursday was grilled by Senate lawmakers over the concealment of long wait times, falsified appointment data and dozens of veterans who died waiting for care.

Like Sebelius, who endured several rounds of angry inquiries by lawmakers, Shinseki’s skewering was bipartisan.

As head of the department since 2009, Shinseki’s five-year tenure has not produced the reforms many on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have been clamoring to see.

With new revelations of the VA’s falsified waiting lists and neglect, Democrats are nervous their party will suffer politically for the ill treatment of the nation’s veterans, many of them combat-injured.

“Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing, but we've come to the point where we need more than good intentions,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a top panel member, said.

Shinseki may even end up faring better than Sebelius.

While many Republican lawmakers and even some Democrats quickly called for Sebelius to step down after the glitch-filled Obamacare rollout, few of them have called for Shinseki's resignation, even as they criticized his inability to fix the dysfunctional VA.

Shinseki is widely admired by lawmakers as a decorated Vietnam War veteran who lost part of his foot after stepping on a land mine. He served a successful tenure as Army chief of staff after achieving the rank of four-star general. He also holds the title of achieving the highest rank among Asian-Americans in the U.S. military.

In the middle of Thursday’s contentious hearing about his handling of VA, Shinseki reminded the committee members that he is not just representing veterans.

“I am one,” he said.

Shinseki’s resume has bought him some time, for now.

“He's got an incredibly military background,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

“I think this issue is a problem for the administration. But how Shinseki handles it will determine whether he becomes a liability.”

Outside of Capitol Hill, however, Republicans have quickly fashioned the scandal into campaign fodder, subbing Shinseki for Sebelius, who earlier this year helped to bring down Democratic poll numbers in key swing districts when the GOP featured her in campaign advertising.

At least a half-dozen Republican candidates on Thursday called for Shinseki to step down.

“Leadership and accountability are what's needed now, we have neither at the VA, and that needs to change,” said Lt. Col. Dan Sullivan, a Republican who is running against Alaska's incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.

Scott Brown, who is hoping to return to the United States Senate by defeating incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, also said Shinseki should resign.

“How many veteran deaths does it take for someone to lose their job? “ Brown, who recently retired from the Army National Guard, said via email and Twitter. “Shinseki should step aside.”

Republicans say targeting the VA is a fair way to contrast their party with the Democrats.

“This horrible scandal is another egregious sign of an inept and incompetent government that has been run by Democrats for the last five years,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said.

The GOP also knows it could stand to gain politically.

“Because this scandal is drawing criticism from members in both parties, it has escalated quickly and has the potential to due significant political damage,” Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said.

CORRECTION: Eric Shinseki held the title of Army chief of staff before he retired from active duty. His title was incorrect in the original version of this story. The Washington Examiner regrets the error. This story was published at 5 a.m. May 16 and was updated at 7 a.m. May 16.

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