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VA investigation gives low-key Rep. Jeff Miller the spotlight

WASHINGTON — Despite more than a dozen years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller is one of the more obscure members of the Florida delegation, a Republican whose website underscores his low profile. "Where is Chumuckla?" reads a page, referring to his hometown (pop. 850) near Pensacola.

Yet few lawmakers have focused as much on military veterans. And now the one-time Democrat and TV weatherman has been pushed to the forefront amid a deepening scandal at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

As chairman of the House VA committee, Miller has helped build up pressure that resulted in President Barack Obama declaring Wednesday he would get to the bottom of the problems.

"I couldn't have been more disappointed with President Obama's remarks," Miller said afterward, demanding immediate action to provide treatment to veterans who have been denied it and to "safeguard" evidence of wrongdoing by VA staff suspected of keeping secret appointment waiting lists.

Miller scored again later Wednesday with the House overwhelmingly approving his bill that would make it easier for top VA officials to be fired.

Before Obama spoke, Miller was on CNN, one of scores of cable news interviews he has done since the issues arose.

"They are finally paying attention," Miller, 54, said of the White House in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "Are they paying attention because of the actual problem or because of the political fallout that may occur? I think it's the latter."

The outrage has spread to both parties, but some Republicans see a political advantage in focusing on Obama. Miller could use his post as a club in what has been a long-running House GOP war with the president.

But while Miller accuses Obama of being disengaged, he has pursued the VA issue in consultation with the top Democrat on his committee. And so far, he has not joined calls for the dismissal of VA chief Eric Shinseki.

"I have cautioned my own colleagues to not let it become a political issue," Miller said, sitting in his office across from the Capitol. "People ask me, 'Why haven't you called for the secretary's resignation?' Because I want to wait for the facts to play out.

"The secretary is a friend. I believe he is an honorable man who should be saluted for his service to this country. But he is head of an agency that has a mind and will of its own and I'm hoping that changes can be made."

Miller places blame on a VA staff he says has kept Shinseki surrounded and isolated from bad news. VA officials, he said, have repeatedly ignored requests for information. The VA did not return phone calls and an email from the Times.

Miller also has encountered an unresponsive White House. "Mr. President, a year has passed since I wrote to you requesting your involvement in addressing a rash of suicides, preventable deaths and other serious patient-care issues" at VA hospitals, Miller wrote in a May 13 letter that called for Obama to convene a bipartisan commission on delays in care.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, a fellow committee member, credited Miller's outreach to Democrats and refused to criticize him while implying other Republicans were hyping the issue. "We've always been bipartisan and I would hate to see it break down." (Still, she was one of only 33 lawmakers, all Democrats, to vote against his bill Wednesday.)

Instead, Brown lashed out at Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has dispatched state health workers to VA hospitals demanding records. The state officials have been rebuffed.

Scott defended the moves in an interview Wednesday. "We work together on other things," he said of the federal government. Scott, who has consulted Miller on VA issues, called for Shinseki to step down. "If we don't have change at the top, no change is going to happen."

Various VA problems have existed for a long time — Obama campaigned on them in 2007 — but they have not drawn as much critical attention as the deaths driving the current scandal have.

"Most people don't focus on the work that comes out of the VA committee, but we have oversight over the second-largest agency in the federal government with a budget of $150 billion a year," said Miller, who rose to chairman in 2010 when the GOP took control of the House.

"If money could have solved this, the problem would have been fixed long ago," he said. "It's a leadership vacuum through the bureaucracy of the VA. The hammer that Congress has is the purse string and the VA knows we're not going to cut their budget. If we do, people will then attack us for not being sensitive to veterans issues."

Miller came to Washington in 2001 after winning a special election to replace Rep. Joe Scarborough, who went on to a career at MSNBC. Miller did not serve in the military but his 1st Congressional District is home to several military installations and 110,000 veterans — more than any other district in the country.

"I can't think of anyone in the House more capable," House Speaker John Boehner said when Miller was named chairman of the VA committee.

Miller has one of the most conservative voting records in the House. But he began in politics as a Democrat, working as an aide to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner. By the late 1990s, Miller was a Republican, reflecting a mass conversion of southern conservative Democrats, and was elected to the state Legislature.

He spent his early childhood in Largo, and went to high school in Levy County. At the University of Florida he studied journalism and landed the TV weatherman job. He has been a disc jockey, deputy sheriff and a real estate broker. On his office wall in Washington hang stuffed heads of animals he has hunted, below them a Red Ryder BB gun.

He's capable of the trite talk of a politician but the soft-spoken delivery and genial personality makes it more convincing. "I'm one of 435 people in Congress," Miller said, "and I just want to do the job I've been asked to do."

An aide sat across from him in a chair, making sure things did not go too long. The congressman from Chumuckla was due for another cable TV interview.

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@tampabay.com.

VA investigation gives low-key Rep. Jeff Miller the spotlight 05/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 10:57pm]
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