An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Pfc. Cody J. Patterson at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Wednesday. According to the Department of Defense, Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., died Oct. 6, 2013 in Zhari district, Afghanistan of injuries sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.
(Photo: Steve Ruark, AP)
(USA Today/AP) -- President Obama was taking emergency steps Wednesday to restore death benefits for military families that have been delayed because of the ongoing government shutdown.
The House voted 425-0 to restore the death benefits, but prospects for the same action in the Senate remained unclear.
The actions came as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Dover AIr Force Base, Del., on Wednesday to meet, before television cameras, the remains of four soldiers killed Sunday in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan.
Along with a 19-year-old Marine who died Saturday, the five are among the first whose families will not receive a $100,000 death gratuity along with other expenses unless the funding is restored or the government reopened.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Fisher House Foundation has agreed to make the payments from its own funds. At the end of the shutdown, the Defense Department will reimburse the foundation for the costs it has incurred.
Congress continued grappling with the issue, which has become a symbol of government paralyzed by opposing political views, unable to provide earned benefits even for those who have given their lives for their country.
Even if the issue of these benefits are resolved, a broader threat continues that $6.25 billion in veterans benefits could be denied to more than 5 million veterans, troops, families and children of deceased military members if the shutdown continues through the end of October, according to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"I just didn't think you would allow this happen," Shinseki told members of Congress about the shutdown during testimony Wednesday. "This is not a game."
As Congress grapples with how to keep earned benefits flowing to those who have served in uniform, events Wednesday became a mix of political theater, recriminations and a litany of dire consequences should the impasse continue.
As the shutdown continues, House Republicans have passed legislation funding individual government departments or specific needs Democrats argue that the full government should re-opened.
"What's happening now is the House of Representatives-which refuses to reopen the government-is scurrying to pass a little bill to take care of these families," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "It isn't nearly enough, because the embarrassment of this government shutdown goes beyond this grievous situation with these bereaving families."
House Republicans have approved piecemeal funding bills to reopen popular government programs and facilities, but only one measure--to make sure the U.S. military is paid during the shutdown--has been approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama.
House Republicans in an emotional floor debate blamed the Obama administration for the lapse in death benefits . "This is a disgrace. An intentional policy of pain," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a veteran.
"They broke a sacred trust with our U.S. men and women who are on the front lines," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., also a veteran.
House Democrats joined with Republicans in support of the measure, but Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations panel, called on the House to reopen the entire federal government.
According to Durbin, 17 service members have died since the shutdown began, including five over the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reiterated his insistence that the full government be up and running in a day if the House approves a Senate-passed stopgap measure to fund the government.
Republicans are holding out support because they are seeking negotiations with Democrats to reach a broader budget agreement.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, used his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber to criticize lawmakers for the lapse in death benefits, underscoring the emotional tenor of the debate. "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."
Official Statement by Sec. Hagel:
Today I am pleased to announce that the Department of Defense is entering into an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation that will allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment.
I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner. In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations. In the days after the shutdown, Departmental lawyers and budget officials pursued every tool and option at our disposal in an effort to provide these benefits. Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly.
In the last 24 hours, however, the Department of Defense was approached by the Fisher House Foundation, which had generously offered to make payments to these families from its own funds. In consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, DoD has determined that we can enter into a contract with the Fisher House Foundation to provide these benefits. The Fisher House Foundation will provide the families of the fallen with the benefits they so richly deserve. After the shutdown ends, DoD will reimburse the Fisher House for the costs it has incurred.
The Department has no higher priority than taking care of our service members and their families. Our men and women in uniform must know that the Department will always fulfill its responsibilities to them and to their families. Congress has responsibilities as well, and it has abdicated them. Along with the rest of the Department's leaders, I will continue to work every day to address the very real impact that the government shutdown is having on our people, and I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government.