Senate leaders said yesterday they will push legislation to increase the death benefits for military personnel, retroactive to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001.
The one-time, tax-free $12,000 "death gratuity" paid to survivors of those killed in the line of duty would rise to $100,000 under legislation outlined by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and others. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said he will offer a separate bill to allow the children of those killed in war to continue receiving health benefits.
Many House members also support a $100,000 death benefit, underscoring public concerns about the deaths, injuries and long tours of duties of troops in Iraq. A proposal for a $100,000 death benefit languished in the previous Congress, but several lawmakers said they expect it to pass this year.
"Twelve thousand dollars is a paltry and miserly amount" for the survivors, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said in a Capitol news conference with four colleagues. "In fact, it's insulting."
The senators said it was unclear how much the benefits package might cost. A retroactive $100,000 death gratuity would immediately cost about $150 million, they said, as about 1,500 U.S. military personnel have died in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who negotiated the $100,00 proposal with Pentagon officials, said he will push a bill that would cost about $460 million because it also would increase life insurance benefits -- which are separate from the death gratuity -- generally paid to the estate of those who die in combat areas.
Families of those killed in combat have not complained about the death benefits, Sessions told reporters, but "this nation just needs to be generous." Whatever the eventual price tag, he said, "it's a cost that is very, very small" compared to the entire Pentagon budget.
Yesterday's news conference involved only GOP senators, but numerous House and Senate Democrats have advocated increased death benefits.
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) recently called on the state legislature to pay life insurance benefits for the state's National Guard troops in Iraq, saying the federal government was doing too little for those fighting the war there.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said that "it's encouraging that Republicans are finally stepping up to the table on this."