A bill to provide benefits for the families of fallen troops is heading to President Barack Obama, a move that failed to quell the furor over the Pentagon's suspension of payments during the partial government shutdown.
By voice vote Thursday, the Senate approved a measure that would reinstate benefits for surviving family members, including funeral and burial expenses, and death gratuity payments. The Pentagon typically pays out $100,000 within three days of a service member's death.
Twenty-nine members of the military have died on active duty since the government shutdown began last Tuesday.
The Pentagon infuriated congressional Republicans and Democrats and touched off a national firestorm when it said that a law allowing the military to be paid during the partial government shutdown did not cover the death benefit payments. Congress passed and Obama signed that measure into law before the government shutdown last Tuesday, and lawmakers insist that the benefits shouldn't have been affected.
In stepped a charity, the Fisher House Foundation, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday would cover the costs during the shutdown. Hagel said the Pentagon would reimburse the foundation after the shutdown ended.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that the organization is "extraordinarily generous and they do very good work," but he pressed for Senate passage of the benefits bill to ensure the Defense Department and Fisher House wouldn't have to figure out a special work-around.
The government could not actively solicit funds from private organizations but could accept an offer.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Pentagon had essentially resolved the problem and the issue was moot, but he didn't object to passage of the bill.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the arrangement with Fisher House means "the legislation is not necessary" because the issue has been resolved. He would not say whether Obama would sign the bill.
Across the Capitol, Republicans on a House Armed Services panel excoriated Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, accusing him of playing politics with his interpretation of the original law. They said the law was designed to pay the death benefits as well as keep all Defense Department civilians on the job -- not to select the most essential.
"You went out of your way to make this as ugly as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible on this department," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the first bill days before the shutdown in an attempt to exempt the military.
Hale responded that the law was poorly written and there never should have been a shutdown in the first place.
"I resent your remarks," the budget chief said. "I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law."
He said it was "not a political judgment -- we were trying to do what the law said."
The chairman of the House subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told Hale that while he welcomed the charity organization's help "to fill this senseless void created by government lawyers narrowly interpreting the law, it is Secretary Hagel's responsibility to make the hard policy judgment and to do the right thing. That is to find a way to treat our families with the respect and dignity they have earned."