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Deaths of veterans while awaiting care, falsified records take root as campaign issue

In this May 21, 2014, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. After weeks of criticism for his detached response, Obama showed new resolve this week on the growing crisis over veterans' health care. He called Shinseki to a White House meeting and then repeatedly vowed to take action at a news conference. The growing furor over veterans’ health care moved to campaign trail Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Shinseki to be fired. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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In this May 21, 2014, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. After weeks of criticism for his detached response, Obama showed new resolve this week on the growing crisis over veterans' health care. He called Shinseki to a White House meeting and then repeatedly vowed to take action at a news conference. The growing furor over veterans’ health care moved to campaign trail Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Shinseki to be fired. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON - The growing furor over veterans' health care moved to political campaigns Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired.

Among those calling for Shinseki's removal amid investigations of VA patients dying while awaiting treatment and falsified appointment records was Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

Democrat Rick Weiland, who is running for South Dakota's open Senate seat, also called for Shinseki's ouster, as did a Democrat running for an open House seat in New Jersey and two Republicans challenging vulnerable Democrats in northern Minnesota House districts.

"We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract," Grimes said in a statement Thursday. "I don't see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place."

Grimes has tried to distance herself at times from President Barack Obama, who is largely unpopular in her state, and she demonstrated her independence by calling for a cabinet member's removal.

McConnell said earlier this week that the predicament at the VA was "a management problem, not a money problem," adding, "it's obvious that the management team needs to be changed."

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said the campaign was pleased Grimes had joined in calling for a change in VA management. Moore criticized Senate Democrats for blocking a House-passed bill that would have made it easier to fire or demote senior VA executives.

Senate Democrats said they are working on their own legislation to make it easier to fire or demote executives at VA.

"I think what the House has done is not unreasonable," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday, adding that he is confident the Senate will act quickly on a measure being pushed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The political manoeuvring came as the Senate Appropriations Committee added language to a military construction spending bill that echoed the House bill. Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, co-sponsored a bill to give the VA secretary broader authority to remove low-performing senior executives.

"The veterans are not getting the medical care, the treatment that they need," said Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Some heads need to roll."

White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said Thursday the Obama administration supports the goal of the House bill, but added, "We do have some concerns that some provisions could result in significant litigation which would divert valuable time and resources from VA's accountability efforts and its core mission of delivering quality services to our veterans."

The administration is working with Congress on better language, Carney told reporters.

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Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in Minneapolis and Jim Kuhnhenn and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Matthew Daly at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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