Yesterday, the South Dakota congressional delegation released letters from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki snubbing them and a Hot Springs community group, denying a request to meet with him and discuss a proposal to close the Hot Springs VA. Sen. Tim Johnson and especially his Republican colleagues Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem expressed their disappointment and (for the latter two) anger over Shinseki passing off a meeting.
The incident spurred reporter Bob Mercer to wonder if President Barack Obama was cutting Johnson loose by refusing to even do him the courtesy of a meeting:
Eric Shinseki let two months pass since their October request, then told them yesterday by letter that he wouldn’t be meeting with them in Hot Springs… (T)he bigger question, beyond making Sen. Johnson look like he has zero pull as he approaches the 2014 election with Republican former Gov. Mike Rounds already announced as a candidate, is why Secretary Shinseki would show so little respect to South Dakota’s two U.S. senators with his slow response and his refusal so far.
But today comes news that either reflects Johnson’s crisis management, or was a stage-managed event to make him look like the hero. In a news release, Johnson says he called Shinseki today (something Noem was unable to set up) and persuaded him to meet with the “Save the VA” committee from Hot Springs.
The meeting will take place in Washington, D.C., and Johnson will be the host — rather than the joint meeting originally requested. Noem and Thune, Johnson says, will be invited to attend.
“I spoke with Secretary Shinseki today and emphasized how important it is that he meet with the Save the VA representatives. He agreed to my request and I am looking forward to the discussion,” said Johnson in his release today. “This meeting will ensure that Secretary Shinseki hears directly from our veterans and area communities.”
Was this planned — for Shinseki to initially refuse the meeting and then dramatically change his mind at Johnson’s request? Or did he simply respond to Shinseki’s letter yesterday by flexing his political muscle and getting the secretary to change his mind? It’s probably impossible to tell, though partisans on each side probably won’t have a hard time making up their minds which is which.
UPDATE: Johnson’s spokesperson, Perry Plumart called to discuss today’s development. My “allegations,” he said (I would characterize them as “speculation,” but that’s semantics) “about it being a set-up are completely false.”
"The delegation received the letter from Secretary Shinseki," Plumart said. "After receiving the letter, Sen. Johnson reached out to the Secretary and was able to secure the delegation meeting, and that includes the people from Hot Springs."
It is probably fair to say that Johnson’s being a Democrat gave him more pull with President Barack Obama’s administration than Thune or Noem, just like a Republican senator would probably have more pull with a Republican president. (That’s not the only factor at work here — a committee chair or ranking member on a key committee might have more influence than a low-ranking senator, even if the latter is of the president’s party and the former is not. But it does matter.)
It’s also important to remember that so far, all that’s been arranged is a meeting. Will Johnson have enough influence to get Shinseki to change his mind about closing the Hot Springs VA, too? Time will tell.
In the meantime, whether it was a set-up or not, this is a minor political triumph for Johnson, who has always emphasized this kind of constituent service as a cornerstone of his political brand.