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Obama signs bill to restore military death benefits

Measure cleared Senate Thursday

Oct. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Joshua Bowden
The Senate approved a measure Oct. 10, passed by the House the day before, allowing the government to pay death gratuity and burial benefits to the families of people who have died on active duty since Oct. 1 despite the government shutdown. Pictured: A caisson carries the casket for Army Staff Sgt. Joshua J. Bowden for his burial service at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 27. (Susan Walsh / AP)
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The Senate moved Thursday to put an end the embarrassing situation of military death benefits being canceled because of the partial government shutdown.

By unanimous consent, the Senate passed H.J.Res 91, a measure allowing the government to pay death gratuity and burial benefits to the families of people who have died on active duty since Oct. 1 despite the government shutdown. The House passed the resolution on Wednesday.

The White House says President Obama signed the measure into law Thursday hours after the Senate cleared it for his signature.

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the death benefits issue had been largely resolved for families on Thursday when the Defense Department signed a contract with a non-profit charity, Fisher House, for the organization to pay death benefits to families, with the Pentagon promising to reimburse expenses once the government shutdown is over. “The issue is largely moot,” he said. “It has been resolved.”

Still, nobody objected when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked for a vote on the House-passed bill.

Lawmakers thought they had provided funding for death benefits with the Sept. 30 enactment of the Pay Our Military Act, a measure promising full pay and allowances to service members during a government shutdown. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the pay law did not apply to death benefits, where Defense Department and Justice Department lawyers had determined were not, technically, pay or allowances.

The issue got political attention after five service members were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, but Hale said he had already warned on Oct. 1 that death benefits were not going to be paid.

Cornyn said the law will allow for payment of the $100,000 death gratuity, $10,050 death benefit and a lump-sum payment of one year of housing allowances to survivors of service members who died in the line of duty.

Twenty-six service members have died since the government shutdown on Oct. 1 as the fiscal year started without any funding. The deaths include four soldiers and one Marine killed in Afghanistan over the weekend

Reid said passage of the resolution is “not just for show” because the families were going to get paid, but he understands the symbolism. “We all agreed that it was a bad thing that the government shutdown led to this added grief for the families who had suffered such a terrible loss.”

The resolution doesn’t fix everything, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s assistant majority leader and chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee. For example, the measure does not provide money for people who prepare grave sites at veterans’ national cemeteries, he said. Veterans’ cemeteries remain open for burials, with reduced hours for scheduling and with workers who, although on the job, are not going to be paid until the government shutdown ends.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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