WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and Congress scrambled Wednesday to restore full military death benefits for families to quell a growing controversy as the federal government shutdown delayed assistance even to families of those who have given their lives for their country.
In a surprise move, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon had reached an agreement with Fisher House, a nonprofit charity that assists military families, to begin paying the survivor benefits, including a $100,000 death gratuity to next of kin, until the government can resume the payments.
The action came slightly more than a hour after the House passed a bill, 425-0, to restore the benefits and sent it to the Senate, although it appeared the Democratic-controlled Senate might not act on the bill after the Pentagon moved to pay the benefits through Fisher House.
If the Senate fails to act, Republicans would have a harder time claiming credit for restoring the benefits.
The flurry of action — and finger-pointing by the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress about who was responsible — came after the deaths of four soldiers in a roadside bomb attack on Oct. 6 focused growing attention on the halt in next-of-kin benefits. The delay was becoming a major embarrassment for both parties.
A senior administration official said that 26 service members have died since the shutdown began Oct. 1, six in Afghanistan and the rest in the United States.
President Obama was “not pleased” to learn that death benefits were not being paid and that grieving families were waiting for the benefits to cover the cost of burials, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “The president expects this to be fixed today.”
The president and Democratic congressional leaders have been reluctant to pass Band-Aid bills to fix specific shortfalls, but neither wanted to be seen as denying grieving military families their benefits.
“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,” Hagel said after traveling to Dover, Del., earlier in the day for the somber arrival ceremony for the remains of the four soldiers killed Sunday.
House Republicans blamed the Obama administration for the lapse, arguing it had the power to keep paying them. “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-Alpine), also a veteran.
William A. Thien, the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the benefits lapse delay “disgusting and shameful,” adding, “It is absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it most.”
He said the VFW’s foundation would provide financial assistance to families of deceased service members until the shutdown ends.
Hagel said that Congress was at fault. “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.”
He said department lawyers determined that the Pentagon did not have the authority to make the payments, even after Congress passed legislation after the shutdown restoring pay for the military.
Fisher House had approached the Pentagon in the last 24 hours offering to pay the benefits, including the $100,000 death gratuity, from its own funds, and administration lawyers had determined that this was legal, Hagel said. “After the shutdown ends, DOD will reimburse the Fisher House for the costs it has incurred,” he said.
When asked earlier Wednesday whether the Senate would act to continue payments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the president was working with the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense to try to solve the problem.
Times staff writers Brian Bennett and Christi Parsons contributed to this report.