By David Lawder and Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans who hope to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats see medical care delays for veterans as a potent line of attack and are devising ways to keep the issue in the news in the months leading up to the November congressional elections.
They are planning a long summer of investigations and hearings on problems at the Veterans Affairs agency to highlight what they say is a pattern of mismanagement in President Barack Obama's administration.
Republicans have tread lightly so far to avoid appearing callous in exploiting an issue involving allegations that veterans died while waiting for VA care. But lawmakers, aides and campaign strategists in the party say they are now ready to go on the offensive, attacking Obama for his slow response to the scandal.
They say the VA care delays and alleged cover-ups are another blunder for Obama, equal to the botched roll out of his healthcare reform law last year, the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.
"This is part of a larger theme that we've been saying for a year now, that voters don't trust the government," said Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Just as Obamacare called into question Democrats' accountability, this does the same."
The scandal is national in scope and focuses on a group that is revered by lawmakers and voters regardless of party. The 21 million U.S. veterans make up a sizeable political constituency on their own and nearly 9 million use VA health care.
The VA Inspector General now is investigating 26 locations across the United States, which aides and strategists say will provide a drum beat of news from local media that will fuel voter outrage in battleground states.
Paul Sracic, who heads the political science department at Youngstown State University in Ohio, said the scandal is dangerous for Democrats because it allows Republicans to link outrage over the VA health care problems to voter discontent over the "Obamacare" reforms.
"If Republicans were writing a script for the summer they couldn't have made up a better story," said Sracic. "The last thing Democrats want is to be still talking about this after Labor Day."
Democrats say they are focused on a strong response to fixing the VA problems. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said Congress should consider a broad restructuring of the way Veterans Affairs provides medical care.
The issue could be particularly potent in areas like North Carolina, a state that is home to several military bases and many veterans. It also has VA facilities in Durham embroiled in the scandal.
Republicans need six additional seats to control the Senate and North Carolina's Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is one of Republicans' top targets.
"This will cost the Democrats the Senate," predicted Larry Sheehan, a Republican political strategist in North Carolina, who expected deep-pocketed political action committees to take the lead on advertising linking Democrats to allegations of VA mismanagement, Obamacare and other Obama troubles.
"Of course they'll be airing ads on this. They practically write themselves," said Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is another top Republican target in the fight for Senate control. Pryor has no military experience, while his opponent, Representative Tom Cotton, is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, a resume which may give him an extra boost with the VA controversy.
In addition to trying to capture the Senate, Republicans want to boost their numbers in the House of Representatives, which they dominate.
The Republican strategy includes pursuing a separate investigation by the House Veterans Affairs Committee and hearings that highlight the administration's failings on veterans' medical care, a senior House Republican aide said.
House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday he lacked confidence in the VA inspector general's abilities and said the House would work "forthrightly" on its own to get to the bottom of the allegations.
OBAMA THE TARGET
Thus far, Republicans have been able to voice outrage and concern for veterans while standing back and watching the scandal unfold in the news media, party aides said.
Doctors first came forward last month in Phoenix with allegations that they were ordered to mask long waiting times with a secret appointment list.
As reports of similar schemes elsewhere surfaced last week, the White House repeatedly voiced support for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki before sending a top Obama adviser, Rob Nabors, to look into problems at the agency.
When Obama on Wednesday broke his silence on the VA allegations, voicing his own anger and sidestepping a question about whether Shinseki would step down, it gave Republicans the green light to accuse him of ignoring evidence of VA care problems for years and doing too little to solve the problem once the scandal blew up.
Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he did not believe the criticism would politicize the plight of veterans.
"This is about incompetence. This is about ignorance," Burr said.
The VA's inspector general's report on the Phoenix allegations is due in August, when re-election campaigns are starting up.
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Henderson)