By DONNA CASSATA and DARLENE SUPERVILLE Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – Families of fallen troops will be assured of receiving death benefits under legislation President Barack Obama signed Thursday amid a national firestorm after the Pentagon suspended the roughly $100,000 payments during the partial government shutdown.
Obama signed the bill into law after it won final passage in the Senate earlier in the day.
But his chief spokesman, Jay Carney, had said the measure was unnecessary because a military charity had stepped in to continue the payments. Carney also had declined to say whether Obama would sign the bill, which reinstates benefits for surviving family members, including funeral and burial expenses, and death gratuity payments.
The Pentagon typically pays out $100,000 within three days of a service member’s death. It said 29 active-duty service members have died since Oct. 1, when parts of the government shut down in a dispute between the White House and Congress over the president’s health care law.
The Pentagon had said the lapse in funding meant it had no authority to continue the payments, but that explanation that did not sit well with members of Congress in either party. The Pentagon said a law allowing members of the military to be paid during the shutdown did not cover the death benefit payments. Congress passed and Obama signed that measure into law before the shutdown began, and lawmakers insisted the benefits shouldn’t have been affected.
In stepped the Fisher House Foundation, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday would cover the costs during the shutdown. Hagel said the Pentagon would reimburse the foundation after the shutdown ends. The government could not actively solicit funds from private organizations but could accept an offer.
The administration said Thursday night that the Pentagon’s agreement with Fisher House would remain intact to make sure the benefits are delivered without further interruption until officials can get the program up and running again.
The bill is the second “piecemeal” measure Obama has signed to hold the military harmless during the shutdown. At the same time, the White House has threatened vetoes of other “piecemeal” measures passed by the Republican- controlled House to continue funding for certain government operations. The White House has said the House should reopen the entire government and not choose to fund some agencies and programs over others.
Obama also supports House-passed legislation to provide back pay for thousands of federal workers forced off the job because of the shutdown.
Across the Capitol, Republicans on a House Armed Services panel excoriated Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, accusing him of playing politics with his interpretation of the original law. They said the law was designed to pay the death benefits as well as keep all Defense Department civilians on the job – not to select the most essential.
“You went out of your way to make this as ugly as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible on this department,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the first bill days before the shutdown in an attempt to exempt the military.
Hale responded that the law was poorly written and there never should have been a shutdown in the first place.
“I resent your remarks,” the budget chief said. “I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law.”
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.