House votes for death benefits, but Defense reaches agreement with donor

October 9, 2013

The House voted 425-0 on Wednesday to approve a measure that would ensure the Pentagon is able to pay death benefits to the families of U.S. service members killed in the line of duty.

The vote came shortly after the White House said President Obama has instructed the Defense Department to ensure that the roughly $100,000 payouts are made as scheduled when necessary.

Around the same time the House passed the bill, though, the legislation became somewhat moot, as the Defense Department announced it had found a donor to pay death benefits until the shutdown is over.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his department is "entering into an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation that will allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment."

The Fisher House Foundation provides temporary housing for the families of loved ones undergoing medical treatment at military and Veterans Affairs hospitals.

The Fisher House Foundation had said Tuesday that it would step in and provide the $100,000 benefit to any family members of killed troops who were being denied the money because of the shutdown. The difference now is that the Pentagon has formally agreed to pay back the Foundation after the shutdown ends.

The House bill is expected to be ignored by the Senate, because Democrats controlling the chamber have said they are opposed to approving piecemeal short-term spending measures instead of reopening the entire federal government.

"When the president found out, he was upset, and he asked his lawyers and the OMB to find a solution," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Office of Management and Budget.

Carney said Obama was troubled when he found out that the bill, passed by Congress, to pay military members during the shutdown did not include the death benefits. He did not say what the resolution would entail or how it would be achieved.

Obama has resisted House attempts to pass spending bills to reopen specific agencies and restart programs, arguing that the government as a whole should be funded. Obama did approve of legislation to pay military members during the shutdown, but has opposed other specific funding measures passed by the Republican-controlled House.

The Pentagon says 26 military personnel have died or been killed since the shutdown began, and their families have not received the “death gratuity” of $100,000 the Defense Department deposits in their bank account within 24 to 36 hours.

Six of those troops were killed in the Afghanistan war, the Pentagon said, while the remaining 20 died in accidents and in other ways around the world.

Families have also not received money to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where those killed in war are brought home in flag-draped coffins. Nor is the government able to pay for burials and funerals, as is customary.

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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Scott Wilson | October 9, 2013