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How Can We Do Right by Vets?; Obama Strong Or Weak In V.A. Scandal?

Aired May 21, 2014 - 18:28   ET


VAN JONES, CO-HOST: Well, Wolf, we've got some great guests today, including the chairman of the veterans affairs committee in the Senate here tonight.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: We also have the committee Republican who asked Eric Shinseki who explain why he should not resign. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on CROSSFIRE, is President Obama doing enough to clean up the scandal over veterans care?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.

ANNOUNCER: So why wasn't V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki fired?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, we need urgency. We need you to roll up our sleeves and get into these hospitals.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Van Jones. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican. They risked their lives for our country. How does the president do right by our veterans? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


JONES: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Van Jones on the left.

GINGRICH: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, two members of the Senate Veterans Committee.

Two sad stories emerged from President Obama's embarrassing news conference today. The first is that, after having a five-year opportunity to clean up the Department of Veterans Affairs, both he and his cabinet appointee failed.

Second, faced with universal coverage of that failure, all we got from the president today was this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: All of us, whether here in Washington or all across the country have to stay focused on the larger mission, which is upholding our sacred trust to all of our veterans, bringing the V.A. system into the 21st century, which is not an easy task.


GINGRICH: Bill Clinton used to say, "I feel your pain." Barack Obama says, "I hope you'll feel my pain." This is a big mess. It deserves a big response. Instead, we get another pathetic example of this president not being up to the task. After Syria, after Ukraine, we have a new red line. This time it's around the veterans affairs building.

JONES: Look, I just think that's completely unfair. First of all, he's doing the investigation. There has been real progress. The homeless issue has been dealt with.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got senator Bernie Sanders, who's a Vermont independent. He's also the chairman of the veteran affairs committee in the Senate. We also have Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada who also serves on that committee. Welcome to both of you.

Let's start with you. You got -- you've been in the spotlight on this thing. You got a lot of attention last week. You actually asked Shinseki to his face why he hadn't resigned. Let me ask you a question. Do you think if you were the president of the United States you would have fired him today? The investigation is not finished. Would you have fired him today?

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: I agree with the speaker on his comments and his introductions. I think this is a real lack of leadership as we're moving forward on this particular issue.

And there are a lot of stories out there. We've known about this for five years. This isn't a new issue. He -- Senator Obama when he was running for president said he was going to clean this up. We've got a 1940s system in the 21st Century. We're no closer, no closer to cleaning this problem up.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: I don't think -- first of all, let me begin by thanking Dean.

HELLER: Thank you.

SANDERS: We talk about veterans issues. I introduced with my committee in, a very bipartisan way -- we try to make it bipartisan -- most comprehensive veterans legislation introduced in the last 20 years. It was supported by the American Legion, the DAV (ph), all of the veterans organizations. Brought it to the floor. I want to thank Dean very much. There were two Republicans who supported it. Dean Heller was one and Senator Moran of Kansas was the over. We got our 56 votes. We need 60 to overcome a Republican filibuster, and we're going to move forward on that. But I did want to thank Dean for his support of that important legislation. Now, let's look about the V.A. for a second. Does anyone here think the V.A. is perfect? I don't think so. If you look at the V.A. objectively a fairly, Newt, what you find out, according to the veterans, themselves, from patient satisfaction surveys, they think V.A. health care is pretty food.

Let me finish. Dean was at the hearing with me. And we asked all the veterans organizations. We said, once you access, once you access V.A. health care, is the care good? And what they said is it was good to excellent. The problem that we're dealing with, which is a serious problem, is waiting lists, is access.

GINGRICH: Well, two things. First of all, among younger veterans, Iraq veterans and Afghanistan veterans, I think 59 percent say it's bad to poor. Only 38 percent say that it's excellent or good. So there's a big difference generationally.

Second, you've had cases now where you have people who couldn't get a colonoscopy, which is not a problem of getting registered, and they die. Isn't anybody worried about that?

SANDERS: Worried about it? It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy. Who could argue that? People have died because of bad care within the V.A., but Newt, this is a "Scientific American" article of a year ago. You know what it says? In hospitals in America, not the V.A., in hospitals in America -- you've seen that study -- between 200 and 400,000 Americans die because of poor treatments in hospitals. They have infections, getting wrong dosages of drugs. So we have a health care crisis in general.

GINGRICH: But let me go a step further. You met today with the president's chief of staff.


GINGRICH: Did he said anything that was more reassuring than the president's press conference?

SANDERS: He said that he and the president regard these problems very, very -- as very, very serious. And they're going to do everything they can to get to the root.

But let's look at what the problems are. As you know, Newt, in recent years because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and you're looking at a guy who voted against the war in Iraq -- but as a result of those wars, we've seen a huge increase of the number of people coming into the V.A.. So these are question we have to ask.

JONES: And that's really where these wars, by the way, which Republicans were the big cheerleaders for, got us into. I hear no accountability, responsibility from Republicans about flooding the system that we've got. And then all day long we hear smashing on the president, "The president's horrible." What could the president have done today that would have satisfied you?

He's got an investigation going on, No. 1. He said he's open to firing Shinseki after an investigation. Our president happens to believe in maybe having an investigation before an execution. What could he have done today that would have made any difference for you Republicans?

HELLER: I wish he would have done this a month ago when this came to the forefront. It took 2,000 articles in the newspaper, on TV, telling him to be upset. Today he manufactured...

JONES: That's completely unfair, Senator. What could he have done today? Today he stood by the investigation. He opened the door for a resignation or firing of Shinseki. You just wanted them to come in there and put the guy's head on a pike? What could he have done today?

HELLER: We're closer with members of Congress. Even on the piece of legislation by the chairman, that I supported him on. I don't think the president was engaged like he should have been on a piece of legislation of that caliber and of that importance. He could have been out there in the forefront, three months ago, six months ago, and really fought for the veterans.

JONES: It's a bipartisan problem, going on for a long time.

HELLER: I agree with that.

JONES: Where are the rest of the Republicans to get something done?

HELLER: By the way -- by the way, this is not a money issue. And I think we're trying to turn this into a money issue. This is a management issue, not a money issue. We've increased 60 percent the amount of money that we put into the V.A. system in the past five years.

SANDERS: We did have two wars and a lot of folks are coming into the V.A.. Obviously you are going to spend more money. I don't know. I'm not so sure you're right on that, Dean. I think you've got choices.

No. 1, it is a fair criticism of the V.A. to say, is their management as effective as possible? Do you have bad managers in hospitals who should have been fired? Probably. You need investigations? Probably.

Second of all, though, I think that when you see a huge increase -- we've got a million and a half more people in the V.A. than we had three or four years ago. You know what? You may need more staff, and it may be a money issue, as well.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you two questions about that. First of all, the House today on a bipartisan basis overwhelmingly passed the bill that would give the secretary the ability to fire about the top 450 people in the V.A. as a way of starting to get a -- we just talked about this.

HELLER: A good step. GINGRICH: Would you be willing to bring that bill up in the Senate, get it to the president and give them a chance next week to give Shinseki that kind of authority?

SANDERS: We are going to do a hear on that bill. You don't just bring a bill up as you well know. And I think we're going to look at a number of pieces of legislation. But if the issue is should the secretary be able to get rid of incompetent leadership, absolutely, positively.

GINGRICH: Second, I was struck, when we began doing research, three articles on about this current situation. The V.A. today is 50 percent bigger in personnel than the Marine Corps.

SANDERS: So what does that mean? They're taking care of 6.5 million people.

GINGRICH: First of all, it means it is a huge system.

SANDERS: It is a huge system.

GINGRICH: And it's a system whose information technology is at least 15 to 20 years out of date. This is part of the Congress's fault. This is not a Shinseki problem.

All the things that Obama campaigned on in '08 were true and they're still true. What's worrisome to me on a bipartisan basis in, this really requires a systems reform that cuts through the whole thing. This is more than scapegoating General Shinseki. This is also the Congress has to own up to having helped create part of this mess.

HELLER: We have a bureaucracy problem in the V.A.. And we have managers now that aren't afraid of Shinseki and they aren't afraid of President Obama. They're simply not afraid of them.

I can give you a good example in the state of Nevada where we have regional officer, a director that won't return my phone calls or anybody else in our delegation. That's a problem.

SANDERS: Let me give you a better example. Let me give you a better example.

JONES: When we come back. When we come back. We're hearing a lot of outrage today about the V.A., as well we should. In a minute I'm going to ask you, Senator Heller, why the Republican outrage on this seems a little bit selective.

But first today's "Fireback Quiz." How far back does the V.A. actually trace its roots? Is it 1636, 1776, or 1917? We're going to have the surprising answer when we get back.


JONES: Welcome back. Now, the answer to our CROSSFIRE quiz. The V.A. actually traces its roots back to 1636 when the pilgrims passed a law saying that disabled soldiers would be supported by the entire Plymouth colony. So, that was then.

Today, there's an awful lot of outrage about this growing scandal at the V.A., as well there should be. But for some Republicans, this outrage seems to be highly selective.

Now, look, Democrats are outraged whenever any sick American can't visit a doctor, so, for instance, when a greedy private company keeps people from seeing a doctor because that's how they maximize their profits, or when Republican governors blockade the Medicaid expansion making it impossible for 20 million working Americans to see doctors, which is happening today, or when bureaucrats conspire to keep our veterans from seeing doctors.

Of course, Democrats are outraged because we're consistent. I just wish the Republicans were.

Now, in the CROSSFIRE tonight, Senators Bernie Sanders and Dean Heller.

So, to you --

HELLER: Man, you're talking to the wrong guy. We had a Republican governor that expanded Medicaid in the state of Nevada.

JONES: OK. Well, good for you.

HELLER: In the state of Nevada, we're outraged and we're always outraged.

JONES: It's all good.

HELLER: We're especially outraged with what's going on with the veterans. We have 300,000 veterans in the state of Nevada. They're not being treated properly. Now, we want to change that. That's --


SANDERS: Let me jump in to make the point. We all recognize that the Republicans -- I don't think you want to throw the baby out with the water.

JONES: That's a good but -- and you're making my point which I want to come back to you, sir. There are Republicans now who seem to be intent on doing exactly that, throwing the baby out with the bath water. You have Republicans now saying they want to use this crisis, exploit it, to introduce vouchers and begin to voucherize the system.

Isn't this a situation where Republicans are going to exploit this thing and bring in vouchers? Are you guys trying to fix the V.A. or are you trying to kill it?

HELLER: First of all, that's not accurate. We had a conference meeting today. Nobody is trying to disassemble the veterans, the V.A. at this point.

I've got a father that's 81 years old. He's a veteran, a disabled veteran from the Korean War --

JONES: Wait, wait, wait. At this point --

HELLER: -- and wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the V.A.

So, there are some changes --


JONES: What about the drive, now, to voucherize and privatize?

HELLER: Absolutely not.

JONES: Well, yes, you can tell me what the cost (ph) about that.

HELLER: That conference, that's not happening in our conference.

JONES: But wouldn't that be a horrible outcome to use this as an excuse to privatize --

SANDERS: Well, I just met with all the veterans' organizations today. They have their differences. They're all united. To voucherize the V.A. would be a total disaster for veterans.

The other point that I want to make, when we look at Shinseki, what he's done in trying to be fair, it's very easy to beat up on this huge bureaucracy. No question about it.

Newt, you talk about information technology. Do you know that under Bush, do you know how we did the V.A. claims? Do you know how we did it?

In the year 2008, we were doing it in paper -- unbelievable, in paper. And I wonder where some of the Republican outrage is no other major institution in the world was doing stuff in paper.

GINGRICH: Let me give an example of the problem, though. We spent over $2 billion trying to go to information technology, and the DOD for help. They failed. The Defense Department and V.A. just spent $1,200,000,000. And in February, two secretaries announced that had failed.

So, part of this is, I think this is a Congress problem. We have to rewrite procurement law for information technology.

SANDERS: Fair enough. But let's -- the V.A. has not failed in terms of transforming the claims issue from paper into an electronic system. In fact, they have reduced the backlog by 52 percent. "National Journal" just reported I think it was yesterday, that they are going to achieve their goal by mid-2015.

GINGRICH: But it apparently takes, I think, 183 days --

SANDERS: It's too long.

GINGRICH: -- to transfer from -- 183 days -- HELLER: Three hundred fifty-five in Nevada, 355 --

GINGRICH: I want to share with you the president's 2008 campaign pledge. In his own words, so you can -- to ask you a question about not having achieved -- watch president, candidate Obama in 2008.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We must also stand up for affordable health care for every single veteran. That's why I pledge to build a 21st century V.A. We need to cut through the red tape.

Every service member should get electronic copies of medical and service records upon discharge.


GINGRICH: Now, it's 2014 and none of that's happened.

SANDERS: Well, what has happened -- you know, putting things into context, can you imagine if we were sitting here at the end of the Bush era, what you would be saying about a system still in paper? You could not believe it, correct?

GINGRICH: I wrote a book on it called "Paper Kills." I'm with you.

SANDERS: All right. So, these guys -- in fairness to Shinseki, because he was in my office, he says, this is what I'm going to do. You know what? They're doing it.

All right. In terms of health information technology between the DOD and the V.A., total disaster. I think much of the blame, the experts will tell you, rests with DOD.

JONES: Well, listen --

HELLER: By the way, that's true with the IRS and the Social Security. Nobody talks to anybody. We have this backlogged group, that I work with Senator Casey from Pennsylvania, put together the solutions to try to fix this backlog.

GINGRICH: Wait a second. I know we have a lot of residual sympathy to the president, but isn't there some point where chief executive has some meaning here?

JONES: Well, look, I mean -- I think people want to beat up on the president, that is fine. But this is a two-party system. You have two parties. And let me ask you --

HELLER: Let's solve the problem. I agree with you. Let's solve the problem. >>

JONES: This is actually a real crisis. This is actually a real scandal. But here is a problem. There is so much -- there has been so many trumped up fake phony scandals in this town that you now have the danger of a Benghazi-ization of this scandal so that you have Republicans using it to score cheap local points.

Aren't you concerned about Republicans politicizing this and being more interested in getting the president than the problem fixed?

HELLER: I'm far more concerned about the 300,000 veterans we have in the state of Nevada. But could you tell today by that press conference that the president is truly concerned about this problem? And that's I think is the real issue.

JONES: What press conference did you watch? The president stood there. He pointed out first of all, if I were Shinseki, I'd be a little concerned for my job because he opened the door for the guy to resign right there in front of God and everybody.

HELLER: Political fence mending. All it was political fence mending.

JONES: Political fence mending?

HELLER: That's what it was.

GINGRICH: That's the whole point. The president of the United States has to render executive judgment. And the president of the United States has to decide whether or not Shinseki should resign. Shinseki isn't a free agent. This is no -- General Shinseki deserves a lot of respect.

But I thought actually it was embarrassing to watch the president of the United States, chief executive officer of America, say -- well, you know, I'm not sure how good a job he is doing. But now, he has to decide himself.

Why have a president if he can't figure any of this out?

JONES: Don't you think in a situation like, this maybe some day --

SANDERS: You know I'm sympathetic to you.


JONES: I got to get some help in here. I got to get some help.

You might be president of the United States. If you were in the present situation, would you fire Shinseki? Tell me why you wouldn't.

SANDERS: I'll tell you. First off, there were allegations made about Phoenix. They're allegations.

Dean was at the hearing with me. And the inspector general has issued, at least made a preliminary statement. You know, we're hearing about 40 people died and all that stuff. But he said, look, we have gone through the list. The first 17 people who died we looked at, none of them died because of delayed care in Phoenix.

So, before you go around firing people, Newt, you know this, we need facts. We need facts.

GINGRICH: Let me just say stay here.

We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. How do you rate Obama's management of the V.A. scandal? Tweet strong or weak using the #Crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.

We also have the outrages of the day. And today is kind of remarkable. Van and I have a joint outrage about an issue so big, it affects every American.


GINGRICH: Welcome back.

Tonight, Van and I have a joint outrage. We were outraged to hear that New York City spends $168,000 a year to keep each prisoner hired at Rikers Island. For the same money, you could send every one of them to Yale for three years. You have a system today that says it's perfectly reasonable to spend $168,000 a year warehousing people who have an 80 percent chance of going back to prison once they're released.

Now, I am not for the very violent ever getting out of prison. But I'm also against spending $168,000 a year on prisoners.

You need creativity. And we're beginning to see creativity.

Earlier today, I attended a conference called Right on Crime. People from state after state came with good ideas about prison reform.

JONES: I'm glad to hear it. I agree with you on this one, Newt, 100 percent.

Now, get this -- I learned something today. In Mississippi, the prison system there for all its problems, is actually now starting to take smart and creative steps to lock up fewer people and waste less money in Mississippi.

Meanwhile -- here is my outrage -- in my beloved state of California, we're spending more money on prisons. More money than we're spending on higher education. Prison spending is so out of control in California now that a dime out of every state dollar is going to prisons that don't even work.

Now, California Governor Jerry Brown could be as forward leaning and progressive as Mississippi, but instead, he is actually resisting court orders to reform. He wants to double down. He wants to build even more prisons, private prisons.

Now, get this -- Mississippi is now smarter than California on prison reform? Come on, Democrats. That is outrageous.

GINGRICH: And you can read more in our joint op-ed at

Let's check on our "Fireback" results. How do you rate Obama's management of the V.A. scandal? Right now, 32 percent of you say strong, 68 percent say weak. How would you two have voted?

HELLER: Brutal.

SANDERSO: Well, you know, let me just say this. We have, and I hope we all agree, we have a moral responsibility to people who have put their lives on the line to defend us, and in many cases have really suffered as well as their families.


HELLER: I agree with the results.



JONES: That's terrible!

Well, I want to thank Senators Bernie Sanders and Dean Heller.

The debate will continue online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Come on, Obama folks, get in this debate.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich. Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.