Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group at the forefront of an effort to oust Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, appeared this week to soften its opposition to Shinseki even as it heralded a petition calling for his removal.
The group protested outside the White House Monday to call attention to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of veterans' claims. They also delivered a petition with 26,000 signatures calling for Shinseki to step down because "his impressive military career has not translated into success as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs."
"Relieve Secretary Shinseki," the petition reads.
But there were indications Monday that even as the group presses for Shinseki's ouster, it is softening its opposition to him, shifting its focus from Shinseki to reform of the VA's civil service.
"This petition, when it was launched, originally called for Secretary Shinseki to be fired, to step down," group CEO Pete Hegseth said. "Secretary Shinseki is a very honorable man. He served this country honorably in uniform, I don't have a bad word to say about him,
"If Secretary Shinseki stays, that's fine," Hegseth said. "He should be given all the tools he needs to create a culture [of accountability]. That doesn't mean more dollars, he's even said himself he doesn't need more dollars."
The VA backlog -- including claims left unresolved for more than 125 days -- now stands at 475,000, down from its peak of 600,000 in March 2013. But, as the Washington Examiner has written extensively in recent months, the problem has ballooned over the past half-decade. In 2009, Hegseth says, there were 135,000 claims awaiting action.
Concerned Veterans, along with other voices such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Time journalist Joe Klein, called on Shinseki to step down earlier this year. But their calls met with ferocious opposition.
In response to a column Klein wrote recently calling for Shinseki's resignation, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said it was "outraged."
"Freedom of the press isn't a license for Joe Klein to twist reality about someone who has volunteered virtually his entire life to serve his country," the VFW statement said. "Secretary Shinseki has one of the toughest jobs in America."
Hegseth said the veterans group could be a meaningful advocate for reform regardless of whether or not Shinseki heads the VA.
"We just haven't emphasized [opposition to Shinseki] because we realized that we can make change without it happening," Hegseth told the Washington Examiner. "Let's say Shinseki doesn't step down: does that mean we failed? No. At this point it isn't about Shinseki, it's about the veterans. We still think he should step down, but if he doesn't he better be given every tool he needs to change the department."
Concerned Veterans is focusing on fundamentally reforming the way the VA runs by targeting its civil service workforce. The goal, Hegseth said, is to change a "culture that doesn't incentivize speed, or accuracy, or customer service or person-to-person contact. It incentivizes paper-shuffling, like any good bureaucracy."
The group also says the VA must enact changes to make it easier to fire poorly performing employes and to reward efficient workers, he said.
"Right now bonuses are given out no matter what," Hegseth said. "A bonus is something you automatically get at the end of the year at the VA."