The U.S. House voted to provide military families with death benefits delayed by the government shutdown, but prospects for the same action in the Senate remained unclear.
Outrage over a delay in death benefits to families of fallen servicemembers prompted Congress and the Pentagon on Wednesday to hastily restore the payments as the latest unintended fallout from a government shutdown embarrassed leaders on both sides.
The Pentagon reached an agreement with the non-profit Fisher House Foundation to restore for military families $100,000 death benefits that have been stalled by the shutdown, which enters its 10th day today.
The House voted 425-0 to restore the benefit, 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., 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 and a 27-year-old Army specialist who both died Saturday, they are among the first whose families faced delays of the $100,000 death gratuity along with other expenses unless funding was restored or the government reopened.
"I am offended, outraged and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this sacred responsibility in a timely manner," Hagel said in announcing the contract with Fisher House.
He said the foundation, best known for building family residences at military hospitals, will be reimbursed by the Pentagon after the shutdown ends.
As he made the announcement, Congress worked to restore the delayed payments, which have 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.
The death benefits actions were the latest policy shift in the shutdown. About half of the Defense Department's civilian employees were furloughed, but Hagel ordered nearly all 350,000 back on the job. An estimated 450,000 federal workers are idled at agencies responsible for items as diverse as food inspection and national parks, although all employees are eventually expected to receive full back pay. Other furloughed federal employees are trickling back to work.
Even as the death benefits issue was resolved, a broader threat continues. A total of $6.25 billion in veterans benefits could be delayed 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 to happen," Shinseki told members of Congress during testimony Wednesday. "This is not a game."
As Congress grappled with how to keep earned benefits flowing to those who have served in uniform, events became a mix of political theater, recriminations and a litany of dire consequences should the shutdown continue.
Shinseki, a retired four-star general who took the VA helm in 2009, said the budget standoff comes as younger veterans are suffering complex health and behavioral issues after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Members of this latest generation of veterans are enrolling in VA at higher rates than ever before," Shinseki testified. "They, along with the veterans of every preceding generation, will be harmed if the shutdown continues."
As the shutdown continues, House Republicans have passed legislation that would fund individual government departments or specific needs while Democrats argue that the full government should be reopened.
"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."
According to Durbin, 17 servicemembers have died since the shutdown began, including five over the weekend.
House Republicans have approved piecemeal funding bills that would reopen popular government programs and facilities, but only one measure — to ensure the U.S. military is paid during the shutdown — has been approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama.
In an emotional floor debate, House Republicans 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.
Shinseki said 70% of the VA — devoted to providing veterans with health care — remains open because of advanced funding approval. But departments dealing with benefits and the operation of national cemeteries remain unfunded, and money is running out.
About 7,800 benefits workers were placed on furlough this week, and 13,000 more will be sent home later this month, leaving a skeleton crew of about 1,100 if government operations are not fully restored, Shinseki testified.
At that point, he said, monthly checks for compensation, pension, vocational rehabilitation, education and other benefits might not go out as scheduled Nov. 1.
That could affect the 5.18 million veterans, servicemembers, orphaned children and spouses of troops who have lost their lives, he said.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy rear 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 faraway battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."
Contributing: Associated Press