Both chambers of Congress now have passed legislation to resume benefits to bereaved military families despite a disagreement over whether a new law’s needed.
The Defense Department contracted with with Fisher House Foundation, which supports military families, to make the payments for the duration of the government shutdown.
“The legislation’s not necessary,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The No.2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, pressed for final action on the special appropriation to pay the $100,000 death benefit for military families, saying the Pentagon may not have the authority to contract with the foundation.
Enacting a new law “would alleviate the need for Fisher House and the Department of Defense trying to figure out a workaround,” and “open a stream of funding so these families get the benefits they deserve,” he said.
No one in Congress argued against providing the payments while other parts of the government aren’t operating. The House passed the bereavement benefits bill unanimously, and no senator raised an objection to sending the measure to the White House without a recorded vote.
Instead, the focus was on who should be blamed and who should get credit.
Cornyn’s Facebook page said that he and other Republicans forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “to surrender and allow the families of our fallen heroes to receive death gratuities and survivor benefits.”
Republicans in the House said the Pentagon had misinterpreted a law enacted to pay military salaries during the partial government shutdown. Carney countered that government lawyers determined that that 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 today’s press briefing. “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,” he said. “Open the government,” he said.
Carney, who didn’t say whether President Barack Obama would sign the bill into law, emphasized that it was on the president’s order to Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to “get creative and get it solved” that the arrangement was hastily reached with the foundation.
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 here,” he said.
The death-benefit issue came to a head following five U.S. military combat deaths in Afghanistan over last weekend. In total, 29 military personnel have died while on active duty since the shutdown, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale today told a House Armed Services subcommittee
The Defense Department announced its contract with Fisher Foundation House yesterday just minutes after the House vote.
Founded in 1990, Fisher House Foundation has built 62 houses 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 in a phone interview. “They’ve already paid a price” with the death of a loved one.
The legislation is H.J.Res. 91.