President Barack Obama signed legislation to resume paying death benefits to the families of U.S. military personnel that Congress passed after the aid had lapsed because of the government shutdown.
Lawmakers approved the measure even as there was disagreement about the need for it. The Defense Department earlier this week had contracted with the Fisher House Foundation, which supports military families, to make the $100,000 payments for the duration of the government shutdown.
The White House announced last night that Obama had signed the legislation into law even though his spokesman, Jay Carney, earlier in the day had said “the legislation’s not necessary” because of the agreement with the foundation.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, pressed yesterday for final action on the special appropriation to pay the death benefit, saying the Pentagon may not have had the authority for the contract. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, consented to Cornyn’s request and, with no other senator raising an objection, the bill was sent to Obama without a recorded vote.
The bill passed unanimously on Oct. 9 in House of Representatives.
Enacting a new law “would alleviate the need for Fisher House and the Department of Defense trying to figure out” how to ensure the payments continue and “open a stream of funding so these families get the benefits they deserve,” Cornyn said.
No one in Congress argued against providing the payments while other parts of the government aren’t operating. Instead, the focus was on who should be blamed for the temporary interruption of the payments and who should get credit for restoring them.
Cornyn’s page on Facebook Inc.’s website said that he and other Republicans forced Reid “to surrender and allow the families of our fallen heroes to receive death gratuities and survivor benefits.”
House Republicans said the Pentagon had misinterpreted a law previously enacted to pay military salaries during a partial shutdown. Carney countered that government lawyers determined the legislation didn’t cover the tax-exempt military death benefits because it didn’t explicitly mention them.
“These benefits were held up because Republicans wanted to defund Obamacare,” Carney said at yesterday’s news briefing, referring to the national health-care law approved in 2010. “From the beginning we were arguing, don’t shut down the government. We specifically through the Department of Defense noted this specific consequence.”
“There is an obvious fix to avoid all these negative consequences,” Carney said. “Open the government.”
Carney also said that it was because Obama ordered White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to “get creative and get it solved” that the Pentagon arrangement was hastily reached with the foundation to pay the benefits.
Even though he agreed to the bill’s passage, Reid said there was no need for it.
“It’s clear the action on this legislation is now just for show,” he said.
The death-benefit issue came to a head following five U.S. military combat deaths in Afghanistan over the past weekend. In all, 29 military personnel have died while on active duty since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a House Armed Services subcommittee yesterday.
The Defense Department announced its contract with Fisher Foundation House just minutes after the House vote on the benefits bill.
Started in 1990, Fisher House has built 62 residences that provide temporary lodging for families of hospitalized military personnel and veterans, according to its website. Its chairman and chief executive officer, Kenneth Fisher, is a senior partner at New York-based Fisher Brothers Realty Corp.
Dave Coker, the foundation’s president, said the group created a $4 million emergency-assistance fund to cover the death benefits during the shutdown. The families of fallen service personnel “shouldn’t be paying a financial price,” he said by telephone. “They’ve already paid a price” with the death of a loved one.
The legislation is H.J.Res. 91.
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