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President Obama, Secretary Shinseki under fire amid VA scandal

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Simone Pathe and Rachel Wellford  May 22, 2014 at 9:19 AM EST
President Obama speaks to reporters about the recent problems at the Veterans Affairs Department in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House Wednesday. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama speaks to reporters about the recent problems at the Veterans Affairs Department in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House Wednesday. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Obama, Shinseki under pressure
  • More to it than just tea party vs. establishment
  • Candidates matter
  • McConnell wants Lincoln-Douglas debates
  • Mississippi’s nasty Senate race is about more than Mississippi

Obama vows accountability with VA scandal: Under mounting pressure from veterans groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill to do more to address allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities, President Barack Obama Wednesday vowed to remedy the problems and hold accountable those responsible for covering up lengthy wait times and other bad behavior. “If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” the president said during an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room. “Once we know the facts, I assure you — if there is misconduct, it will be punished.” The forceful statement signals the stakes for the administration in taking corrective action on what the president called “one of the causes of my presidency.” Top Republicans said Wednesday that the president’s remarks did not go far enough. Arizona Sen. John McCain called them “insufficient,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune declared the episode a “national embarrassment,” and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the president acted too slowly and called for “an independent investigation.” With the president slowly beginning to recover from the political damage caused by the botched rollout of the health care website last fall, the controversy at the VA threatens to undermine that effort.

Still standing by Shinseki: Despite the number of VA facilities being investigated by the department’s inspector general expanding from 10 to 26, and with allegations of misconduct ranging from inappropriate scheduling practices to the stealing of pharmaceuticals, Mr. Obama stood by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki — for now. He called him “a great soldier,” and said he would “work with him to solve the problem, but I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.” And: if he “does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.” But calls for Shinseki’s ousting are becoming louder. One veterans group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said trust in “the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken.” And two Democrats — Georgia Reps. John Barrow and David Scott — said he should resign. Shinseki will be on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon for a meeting with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who told MSNBC that he planned to put the secretary “on the spot” over the problems at the VA. Should support among congressional Democrats for Shinseki, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, start to erode, it will become much tougher for the president to stand by him. The House voted 390 to 33 Wednesday to approve the VA Accountability Act, which would make it easier for the department’s secretary to fire career employees for wrongdoings. A similar measure is under consideration in the Senate.

What tea party vs. establishment narrative?: Democrats have been arguing that there is no difference between tea party conservatives and mainstream Republicans because there are very few policy differences between these candidates in the primaries. As we wrote earlier this month, “In many ways, the tea party has already won. It re-wrote the script in 2010 and 2012, and Republicans have been looking over their right shoulder since.” The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page echoes that Thursday. “The tea party has already changed the GOP on policy, and mostly for the better, but it is suffering this year because the candidates and operatives acting in its name have been motivated more by personal than policy agendas.”

It’s also the candidates: The fact is: candidates matter. In basketball, there’s a saying: “You can’t teach height.” It’s a similar story in politics: for all the consultants, strategists and ad makers, some people have it and some people don’t. The Journal argues that Matt Bevin in Kentucky, Steve Stockman in Texas, and Greg Brannon in North Carolina just didn’t have it: “They didn’t lose because the GOP primary electorate has suddenly been captured by ‘moderates,’ or some mythical establishment in the Burning Tree locker room. They lost because they were inferior candidates who differed little from their GOP opponents on policy but seemed less capable of winning in November.” There’s only so much you can teach candidates. But also make no mistake — establishment outside groups were not going to be taken by surprise and were determined to squash these lesser candidates this cycle with Senate control in clear sight. They learned the lessons of 2010 and 2012, where these candidates cost them five seats.

McConnell wants to debate: Immediately after Tuesday’s primaries, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell challenged his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes to three Lincoln-Douglas style debates. By the way, it’s usually the person that’s losing — or has some ground to make up — that calls for debates. And he wants it to take place as soon as possible. McConnell wrote in a letter to Grimes’ campaign that the Lexington Herald-Leader’s editorial board had suggested, “May 21 [yesterday] would not be too early for us to find time to debate, and I agree.” The Washington Post’s Ben Terris writes that Grimes is “unabashedly embracing the political upside of her gender” — she predicted on Monday that it would be McConnell who would be the “empty dress” and not show up for debates — and is implying that McConnell isn’t taking her or other women seriously.

Mississippi Rising: We noted Wednesday that all the pieces are falling into place for Republicans to make a strong push to take over the Senate this fall. But watch out for Mississippi tea party challenger Chris McDaniel. He’s moving up quickly in the polls. Weeks ago incumbent Thad Cochran was up double digits. That does not appear to be the case now ahead of the June 3 primary. Establishment Republicans worry that McDaniel’s past comments could tarnish other Republican candidates across the country. Case in point: his tough radio interview this week in which he had difficulty talking about “the arrest of a blogger last week on allegations he filmed Cochran’s bedridden wife and posted an image of her in an online video,” the Washington Post notes, calling this race now “a full-fledged political war” and one of the nastiest in the country.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first president to visit Russia. With whom did he meet? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia, and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to Graham H. Morris (@GrahamHMorris) for correctly guessing Tuesday’s trivia: Under which U.S. president and what year did the law finally change to allow 18-year-olds to vote? The answer was: President Nixon; the 26th amendment was ratified in 1971.

LINE ITEMS

  • Democrats finally made a decision on the special Benghazi committee and will participate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed five members, NewsHour’s Quinn Bowman reports. They are: Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, Washington’s Adam Smith, California’s Adam Schiff, California’s Linda Sánchez, and Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth.

  • President Obama will travel to Cooperstown, New York on Thursday to deliver remarks on tourism at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Later, the president will travel to Chicago to participate in two events for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

  • The New York Times’ Upshot election model now gives Dems a 57 percent chance of retaining the Senate, mostly because of polling in Arkansas and Colorado in particular that gives the incumbent Democrat a more than 60 percent chance of winning.

  • A group of prominent conservative writers and policy analysts is releasing a 121-page policy manifesto Thursday to make the GOP more attractive to middle-class voters who may have been turned off by Mitt Romney’s focus on entrepreneurship in 2012. “News flash: Most people don’t own their own businesses,” said an adviser to YG Network, which is promoting the platform. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and McConnell will be on hand for the release.

  • Billionaire Tom Steyer is putting his money behind Democrats in the Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire Senate races and the Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine gubernatorial races.

  • Mother Jones says Hillary Clinton’s made about $5 million in speeches so far.

  • The House votes Thursday on a National Security Agency surveillance reform bill that was watered down Tuesday when the House Rules Committee loosened proposed restrictions on the agency’s data searches.

  • The New York Times writes of anti-abortion bills that have become law in the South, “Legal experts say the legislation is raising a fundamental question: At what point is access to abortion so limited that it violates the right to the procedure granted by the United States Supreme Court.”

  • A new Marquette Law School poll shows a dead heat in this year’s Wisconsin gubernatorial race with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Mary Burke tied at 46 percent. Wisconsin voters are less enthused about Walker’s presidential prospects, with just 27 percent saying they want him to run in 2016.

  • Republican leaders are tapping conservatives with tea party clout, including Sen. Rand Paul, to help unite the GOP after this spring’s primaries. Paul will appear with McConnell at a press conference Friday, and says he’ll be stumping for the state’s senior senator this summer.

  • Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel holds a 41 percent to 32 percent lead over state Senator Adriano Espaillat in New York’s 13th Congressional District, according to a New York Times/NY1/Siena College poll.

  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke to an audience that included Sheldon Adelson this weekend, but instead of making amends for his previous comment about “occupied territories,” he never even mentioned Israel.

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, thinks California’s drought is being caused by environmentalists who have diverted all the water to a particular species of fish.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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