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Death benefits lapse could help spark agreement to end shutdown

Oct. 8, 2013 - 04:56PM   |  
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The Defense Department’s denial of death benefits to the families of fallen troops could finally prompt lawmakers to reach an agreement to end the government shutdown.

In the House, a bill appropriating money for military death benefits was being hastily drafted with plans for quick passage. But in the Senate, the lapse in benefits was being used as a call to resolve the budget standoff.

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he believed death benefits were covered by the Pay Our Military Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Sept. 30. “That was our clear intent,” he said.

“If the Pentagon believes they need more explicit authority to disburse these payments, I am sure the House will provide it in very short order,” McKeon said. “We can never let the welfare our our troops and their families become pawns in a political contest.”

In the Senate, the lapse in death benefits was being used as a bipartisan call to end the government shutdown.

“I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed. All of us should be,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a Tuesday afternoon debate on the Senate floor about options for bringing to an end a partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1.

Two payments, a $100,000 death gratuity and a $10,050 death benefit, are normally paid to survivors within 36 hours of an active-duty death, but the government shutdown has postponed payments for deaths since Oct. 1.

The lapse in benefits, detailed by defense officials at the beginning of the government shutdown, gained wide attention after four soldiers and one Marine died in Afghanistan over the weekend.

“The shutdown of the federal government is now affecting some families more than others,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader. “It is ... denying the benefits to help with funeral expenses of loved ones killed while serving our country.”

Payments are intended to help cover funeral costs and immediate living expenses, Reid said. “The money also helps cover costs to fly families to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of their loved ones.”

“For the families who lost five love ones, it is an unbearable loss,” Reid said, “but now they are being denied death benefits because of this senseless shutdown.”

“It is shameful and embarrassing,” Reid said. “That America could fail the families of our fallen heroes is appalling, frightening.”

Reid used the lapse in death benefits to launch a bipartisan floor debate over reopening the entire federal government, saying death benefits are just an example of the problem.

“Shouldn’t we be embarrassed about this?” McCain said. “Shouldn’t we be ashamed? What do the American people think?” He urged fellow senators to “sit down and talk like grownups” about resolving the budget standoff.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, however, said he believes the Defense Department could pay death benefits but has decided not to do so in a White House-orchestrated effort to maximize the pain of a government shutdown

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