WASHINGTON The top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee fired back at some leading veterans groups on Tuesday after they accused him of a "mean spirited" attempt to politicize the scandal over delays in medical care at VA hospitals and clinics.
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina sparked the fight at the start of Memorial Day weekend by scolding several veterans groups in an open letter for not demanding that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resign.
He lauded the American Legion, which has called for Shinseki's ouster over alleged cover-ups of months-long waits for appointments at VA facilities.
Burr said that other veterans groups "appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within the VA, protecting their relationships within the agency and securing their access to the secretary and his inner circle."
He also said the groups had ignored VA problems expressed by their members and should "reconsider their role as well as the nature of their relationship with the VA."
Burr's missive prompted angry responses from some groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
"You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country," leaders of the Paralyzed Veterans of America said in a letter to Burr.
The VFW said in a statement that it would take a harder line with Congress on funding and legislative issues.
"Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally. Quite frankly senator, you should be ashamed," wrote VFW commander in chief William Thien.
Burr shot back in a statement on Tuesday that the reaction "seems to prove my point: they are far more outraged by my words than they have been thus far by any of the unfolding VA scandal or Secretary Shinseki's mismanagement of the agency."
"How many IG, Special Counsel, GAO, and Medical Investigator reports does it take to spur outrage and prompt action?" Burr added.
The volley comes as Republicans are formulating plans to keep the VA care delay scandal in the news this summer and paint it as an example of Obama administration mismanagement that could boost their chances of recapturing control of the U.S. Senate.
It also comes as Congress is working on a number of measures to address the care delay scandal. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives this week will consider a measure aimed at boosting accountability for changes mandated by the department's Inspector General. It would require reports to Congress and the VA secretary about any failure to make "significant progress" on such changes, including names of managers responsible.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller also plans to introduce legislation guaranteeing that any veteran who has to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a VA clinic or hospital can seek outside care at the department's expense.
(The story corrects 2nd paragraph; Burr serves North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, not South Carolina)
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Tom Brown)