The head of a veterans’ advocacy group ripped lawmakers from both major parties for enabling the failings of the Veterans Affairs (VA) department in an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Wednesday, while specifically mentioned independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This goes bigger than the president,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) head Paul Rieckhoff told Maddow. “You’ve got a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee with no veterans on it. You’re gonna have Senator Bernie Sanders on later; he’s basically been an apologist for the VA over the last few weeks. And then you’ve got the ranking [GOP] leader, Senator [Richard] Burr, who thinks it’s a good idea to attack veterans’ groups. So I think what you continue to see is that everyone has failed us here.”
Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has clashed with some veterans’ organizations after they accused him of using the VA’s problems as a chance to score political points. Burr responded by posting a statement online accusing them of wanting to preserve the agency’s “status quo.” But Maddow reported on Wednesday that Burr did so after leaving a committee hearing featuring testimony from some of those groups.
On the other hand, Rieckhoff said, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Committee on Veterans Affairs leader Jeff Miller (R-FL) have been consistent in their own advocacy efforts on behalf of veterans. CNN reported on Wednesday that Miller is one of several lawmakers who has called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign amid allegations of several VA clinics manipulating data related to delays in treatment.
Rieckhoff told Maddow that the reports implicating officials in facilities around the country are not news to veterans. But with the country now made more aware about the problems in the VA system, he added, the pressure is only continuing to mount on President Barack Obama.
“This is a defining moment of his presidency,” Rieckhoff said. “This is a defining moment in American history. Are the American people gonna step up and support our veterans or not? That’s the bottom line here, because this is not new.”
Later in the show, Maddow asked Sanders, who chairs the Senate committee, to respond to Rieckhoff’s accusation.
“Needless to say, I don’t quite agree,” Sanders said. “A few months ago, I brought forth what was widely believed to be the most comprehensive veterans’ legislation to improve the lives of the veterans of this country in terms of healthcare, employment, education, advanced appropriations, and many other areas. [It] had the support of every veterans organization, including Mr. Rieckhoff’s organization. Unfortunately, we were only able to get two Republican votes to support that.”
Sanders was referring to a February 2014 bill containing 140 provisions and calling for the addition of more VA clinics.
At the time, Burr argued that the measure did not provide enough resources to cover that kind of expansion. As Maddow said in a commentary last week, Senate Republicans also attempted to add “poison pill” amendments to the bill.
Watch Maddow’s interview with Rieckhoff, as aired on MSNBC on Wednesday, below.
Sanders’ response from later in the show can be seen here.