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October 23, 2014

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Analysis: Seeking political gain over VA issues

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats alike want it both ways when it comes to any misdeeds at veterans hospitals, each side accusing the other of seeking unseemly political gain from the misfortune of the nation's warriors, while simultaneously maneuvering for an advantage in midterm elections.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee jumped in on Thursday, charging Republicans in key races with "politicizing (a) horrible crisis" for political gain — then accusing them of compiling "shameful, anti-veterans'" records.

The same two-sided tactic had previously occurred to Republicans and their allies.

One House committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, said the problems now coming to light at VA hospitals shouldn't be used for political gain.

Yet the Republican National Committee announced it was making automated calls to voters in 10 states with Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot. Veterans "deserve an independent investigation, not another political cover-up," the calls said.

An outside organization, the Republican-supporting Crossroads GPS, skipped the hand-wringing. It simply sought to lay at least partial responsibility for the poor treatment of veterans at the feet of Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.

"A national disgrace," it says. "Veterans died waiting for care that never came. Sen. Mark Begich sits on the Veterans' Affairs Committee."

The Alaskan is among a dwindling number of Senate Democrats in tough races this year to refrain from calling on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down.

A wounded veteran himself, Shinseki has seemed to be serving on borrowed time since allegations surfaced that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting care at the veterans health care system in Phoenix.

The criticism intensified Wednesday after agency investigators issued a searing interim report that said 1,700 former members of the service seeking hard-to-get appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital never had been placed on the official waiting list and were at risk of being forgotten.

For a time on Wednesday and Thursday, the list of Democrats seeking Shinseki's surrender seemed to grow hourly, despite a series of phone calls from the embattled Cabinet officer to key lawmakers. White House support for the former Army general seemed to be fading, and spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was awaiting a full investigation into the agency's troubles before deciding who should be held accountable.

So far, the political moves have been low-budget, mass telephone calls, web-based attacks and television commercials that will air relatively infrequently. They're likely to stay that way until it becomes clear how long-lasting the furor is.

It's far too early for a full accounting of any misbehavior at the agency, and also impossible to predict how significant the political fallout will prove to be in elections this fall.

The polls to date are of little use in determining the ultimate political importance of the controversy. For the most part, public surveys don't routinely ask voters how important veterans' concerns are to them, or how they rank those issues in importance with the economy, health care, Medicare and other matters.

Already, though, it's clear that anyone in either party who argues that the care of veterans should be ruled out of order for the campaign has been outvoted. In a landslide.

Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans had gone first. "We're reacting to their attempt to play politics with veterans by encouraging a comparison of the candidates' actual record on veterans. It's a conversation we welcome," he said.

That may be better ground for Democrats than a pure discussion of shortcomings at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But it is not necessarily one that suits the political goals of Republicans.

Their objectives seem to be to draw attention to veterans-related problems now becoming evident during Obama's presidency, and to create a broader impression that he has governed incompetently with the support of Democratic lawmakers.

Thus, the National Republican Senatorial Committee posted a blog on its website that said: "Democrats are in complete disarray. From the growing VA scandal to their increasingly unpopular health care law and show no sign of improvement."

House Republicans' political counterpart jumped on Carney's statement that Obama learned of the veterans hospital problems from media reports. "This isn't the first time we've heard something like this," it said on its website.

Nor is it clear which side went first.

As long as three weeks ago, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., sought campaign funds for her re-election in an emailed letter. "It's heartbreaking that up to 40 veterans may have died waiting for care," she wrote. Her office quickly explained that including a request for funds in the mailing was an error made by a vendor that was quickly corrected.

Sinema apologized and her office said she donated double what she had received in donations from the letter to a veterans group.

By then Republicans had jumped. "This is beneath the dignity of her office and she owes the veterans in her district an apology," posted spokesman Matt Gorman.

It was a harbinger of political maneuvering to come.

David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.

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