By Allison Sherry
With help from Rachel Stassen-Berger
WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar joined a chorus Friday in criticizing the Veterans Administration and pressed the regional office on wait times for medical appointments in Minnesota's clinics and hospitals.
"The incidents that have been reported at VA facilities in Arizona and elsewhere are outrageous and entirely unacceptable," the two wrote in a letter to Janet Murphy, network director for the VA Midwest Health Care Network in Minnesota.
Franken and Klobuchar specifically asked Murphy for the average number of days veterans must wait to receive appointments at every VA facility in Minnesota.
One of Franken's GOP opponents Mike McFadden pinged the senator earlier Friday for keeping quiet on the VA scandal, in which more than two dozen hospitals and clinics face allegations of long wait times and false record-keeping. In Phoenix, there are allegations the missteps caused multiple deaths.
"Criticizing mergers and talking about Internet fast lanes may generate headlines for Sen. Franken, but it does nothing to guarantee that our veterans have access to quality healthcare when they need it," said McFadden, in an e-mailed statement. He also called for Shinseki's resignation. "Minnesota doesn't need any more out-of-touch politicians like Al Franken."
Franken's office said that two weeks ago, in the wake of the news about several alleged incidents at VA medical centers in Arizona and elsewhere, the senator directed his office to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to find more information about the wait times for medical care.
Franken and Klobuchar's letter went out the same day Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation.
Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz didn't go that far Friday, instead calling for a "national review" of all VA medical facilities. Walz is a veteran and member of the Veteran's Affairs committee.
GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen has not called for resignation. Rep. John Kline scribed an op-ed on VA issues earlier this week in a local paper, which stopped short of calling for a resignation. Rep. Michele Bachmann, on Fox News, called for his resignation.
All week, Minnesota Republican Congressional candidates blasted Democrats on the scandal. On Thursday, Republican 7th Congressional District candidate Torrey Westrom and 8th Congressional District Stewart Mills also called for Shinseki’s resignation. First District Republican Jim Hagedorn’s campaign sent out a release titled, “Obama-Walz have let down veterans."
Hank Sadler, chair of Veterans for Walz, sharply criticized the "partisan" attacks.
"It's despicable that Republicans running for Congress would use veterans' lives in a blatant attempt to score cheap political points. They should be ashamed," he said, in an email.
First District Republican Aaron Miller had also blasted Walz on May 21, with a release titled, "Our veterans deserve better, President Obama and Congressman Walz are failing them."
On May 27, Kline said: "General Shinseki is a decorated Vietnam veteran and I appreciate his service to our country, but the entire leadership of the VA must be held accountable which is why I’m calling on him to resign – and if he doesn’t, the President should relieve him of his duties."
The U.S. House passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, legislation that would pave the way for closure of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River in an effort to prevent the advance of invasive carp.
The water infrastructure bill, which passed on a near unanimous vote, also includes a provision from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum that would create a federal task force headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to combat the spread of invasive carp throughout the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River Valley.
A voracious species, the invasive carp can grow to 40 pounds or more and some can jump up to 10 feet out of the water. They compete with native game fish, including bass, walleye, and northern pike, for food and habitat.
If the lock remains open, environmentalists and state Department of Natural Resources officials fear the carp could spread north past the barrier causing irreparable harm to the state’s fishing and tourism industries.
The legislation “protects our vital fishing and recreational industry, it preserves tourism jobs in northern Minnesota, it prevents us from spending government dollars to manage carp if these fish invade northern Minnesota waters,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said in a House floor speech.
The Senate could vote on the bill before the end of the week, sending it on to President Obama for his signature.
The bill also authorizes spending up to $800 million for a flood diversion project that would protect the Red River Valley region of North Dakota and Minnesota.
Congress could soon close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam as part of a deal on an $8.2 billion water-infrastructure bill.
House and Senate conferees last week reached agreement after nearly six months of negotiations on their respective versions of a bill to authorize funding for improvements to ports, waterways, and projects tied to flood protection, drinking water, dams, and environmental restoration.
The bill is up for votes in the Senate this week and the House next week.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Reps. Keith Ellison, Rick Nolan, Erik Paulsen and Tim Walz celebrated the agreement. Ellison and Klobuchar wrote provisions in the House and Senate bills that helped incorporate the lock closure in the final legislation.
Proponents of closure say the effect on a handful of Minneapolis companies pales in comparison to what could happen to Minnesota’s $11 billion-a-year tourism industry if Asian carp, an invasive species that crowds out native fish, begin breeding in the state’s lakes and rivers.
“Closing the little-used St. Anthony Falls Lock is the best way for us to slow the spread of invasive carp in Minnesota and to protect the natural resources that are critical to Minnesota’s economy and our way of life,” Ellison said in a statement.
Television and radio ads already airing to influence Minnesota voters in races for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the governor's race and are unlikely to let up until Election Day.
Although the ads are coming late -- during the competitive U.S. Senate race in 2008 the air war was already months old by this point -- their appearance presages a barrage through November.
With potentially heated races for governor and U.S. Senate as Republicans work to wrest both offices from Democrats who won their first races by narrow margins, candidates and their allies will battle across the state's airwaves. National interests see the 8th Congressional District, which has flopped between Democratic and Republican control in recent years, as ripe for a turn over and therefore overdue for more ads.
In the governor's race, Republican Marty Seifert plans to launch his first ad this week, his campaign said on Wednesday. It is the first TV spot in the race that will determine whether DFL Gov. Mark Dayton keeps his job. Andy Post, Seifert's campaign manager, said the ad will run during the Minnesota Wild's Friday night game.
Seifert is in a pitched battle to woo Republicans at the party's endorsing convention this month and the GOP will likely also have a crowded primary in August. Businessman Scott Honour, another contender for Republican votes, has also been running radio ads.
Dayton, who has amassed larger campaign coffers than any of the Republicans running against him, has not yet started television ads. He is focused on the legislative session and unlike in his first election, does not face a primary. His campaign manager Katharine Tinucci said he has the resources to run ads when the time comes but, "that time is not now."
Minnesota viewers may see and hear more ads in the other statewide contest -- the race for the U.S. Senate.
In that race, the most significant candidate media spending has come from Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken. This week started a six figure television ad campaign. He has raised more than all but a few sitting senators so likely has the resources to keep it up.
Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden started running cable ads a few weeks ago and Republican rival Julianne Ortman began radio ads late last month.
That's only a taste. When Franken first ran, he and then-Sen. Norm Coleman, spent millions on dozens of television ads blasting Minnesotans right until their recount began.
Outside groups are also gearing up. A conservative group launched an anti-Franken ad way back in March.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce included Republican U.S. House candidate Stewart Mills in its $3 million television ad campaign to jump-start Republican campaigns "and unite the business community around their efforts,” Scott Reed, the chamber’s senior political strategist, told the New York Times.
Minnesota’s Democrats and Republicans have selected their candidates to do congressional battle this year.
Over the last several months, activists have gathered in small meetings across the state to pick their favorites. Now their slates are complete.
In most districts, those picks are expected to have clear sailing to the general election. In at least one, the party-endorsed candidate will still face a primary.
In the map below, find out about this year's congressional combatants.
Graphic: Jamie Hutt, Star Tribune
Star Tribune staff reporter Allison Sherry contributed to this post.