The House voted unanimously Wednesday to restore a benefit that helps families of fallen soldiers plan funerals and meet their loved ones’ bodies — a snag of the government shutdown that drew outrage across the country.
The vote, 425-0, came hours after grieving relatives, denied the help because of the budget impasse in Washington, watched the flag-draped caskets of their loved ones returned to American soil.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said before the vote that the president “expects this to be fixed today.” It was not immediately clear when the Senate would act. Members of Congress, scrambling and embarrassed, pledged that the lapse would be corrected in short order.
The benefit is a $100,000 payment that arrives within days of a soldier’s death, bridging the gap between a military salary and survivor benefits. Since its suspension, as detailed in a series of NBC News stories, their immense grief has been compounded by outrage and frustration.
The Obama administration says it has worked out a solution to allow the families of fallen military members to receive death benefits during the government shutdown. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Fisher House Foundation has agreed to make the payments from its own funds. At the end of the shutdown, the Defense Department will reimburse the foundation for the costs it has incurred.
The Fisher House Foundation is a charity organization that works with veterans and military families.
Carney was hammered by reporters at an afternoon briefing about when the president learned that the benefit was being suspended. A senior White House official said that the Defense Department had warned Congress, before it passed a bill to pay the military during the shutdown, that the benefit would be cut off unless it was explicitly addressed.
Members of the media continue to ask White House spokesman Jay Carney about when President Barack Obama became aware that death benefits to military families were in jeopardy amid the federal government shutdown.
Moments before Carney spoke, the families gathered at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to tend to their grim retrievals. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attended the ceremony, watching, as the families did, as a white-gloved honor guard carried four flag-covered cases out of the belly of a military jet and into a mortuary truck.
(Below: Raw video of coffin of fallen Oregon soldier Cody Patterson returning to U.S.)
While Washington bickered, the families tended to their grim retrievals.
Matt Peters, the brother of Army special agent Joseph Peters, said that in the minutes before he and his mother received the casket, nothing mattered but the loss itself.
“We don’t care about shutdowns or payouts or any of that right now,” he told NBC News. “We’re just trying to grieve.”
Peters, assigned to the Army military police, was among four killed over the weekend in Afghanistan whose bodies were being returned to Dover on Wednesday and whose families were denied the benefit, a $100,000 payment known as the death gratuity.
“It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry,” Special Agent Peters’ wife, Ashley, said before boarding a plane to Dover to meet the body of her husband.
The shutdown entered its ninth day no end in sight. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest veterans organization in the country, repeated its disgust on Wednesday and said it was “absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged that the benefits “are going to be restored, without any question.” The House planned to pass legislation later in the day, invoking a fast-track procedure that requires a two-thirds majority. The bill was expected to pass unanimously.
The chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, directly invoked the denial of the benefit in his daily opening prayer before the chamber.
“Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far-away battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” he said. “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.”
Congressional lawmakers squabble Wednesday over a delay in death benefits to military families during a House hearing on veteran benefits.
Some members of Congress were surprised that it was not covered by a law passed just before the shutdown that authorized “pay and allowances” for the military. In any event, the Senate was expected to pass the fix, and Obama to sign it, quickly.