Congress approved a bill Thursday that guarantees death benefits for families of service members killed in action during the government shutdown, and President Obama signed it despite the White House having said it already had found a solution and the legislation isn’t needed.
Republicans forced the bill through the Senate after it cleared the House on Wednesday, sending it to a president who was furious to learn the Pentagon had stopped paying the $100,000 gratuity meant to cover funeral costs and immediate needs of families of fallen troops.
The White House said the bill wasn’t needed because the Defense Department already asked the Fisher House Foundation to pony up during the shutdown, and promised to repay the organization when the shutdown ends. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama signed the bill Thursday evening.
The revelation that Gold Star Families weren’t getting the gratuity was a further black eye in a week when few in Washington looked good.
Congressional Republicans said they’d meant to restore the payments when they passed the Pay Our Military Act last week, restoring funding for “pay and allowances” for the troops.
The Defense Department, though, said it read the law differently and was halting the benefits — though they apparently didn’t come back to Congress nor give a heads-up to the White House, which was caught off-guard.
“In his evening walk with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Tuesday, the president raised the concern about death benefits not being paid to deserving families,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
When Mr. McDonough explained that the White House and the Pentagon were trying to find a solution, “The president directed Mr. McDonough to get creative and get it solved within 24 hours,” Mr. Carney said.
That solution was to turn to Fisher House, the Maryland-based charity that provides low-cost housing to veterans and families of those being treated at military medical centers. CEO Ken Fisher told Fox News his organization received a call Tuesday from Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, “asking, will we help, and of course there was no other answer.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who pushed the bill through the Senate on Thursday, said it will clean up the solution better than the administration’s work-around.
“Not only is this legislation necessary, it’s the moral obligation of this nation, and it’s the spoken will of Congress that we deliver immediate assistance to the families of fallen service members,” he said.
The initial Pentagon decision also continued to irk lawmakers.
Rep. Rob Wittman, Virginia Republican, told defense officials at a House hearing it was an “absolute embarrassment” to stop paying the gratuity.
Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale said the Pentagon’s interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act found that death benefits were not covered.
“We just don’t have the legal authority, and I don’t think you want us to start going around the law,” said Mr. Hale, adding that their work-around would solve the situation for now.
The Congressional Research Service sided with House Republicans. An opinion by Edward Liu, a legislative lawyer for CRS, said the wording of the Pay Our Military Act was similar enough to appropriations bills that it should have been clear the aim was to cover all benefits.
Some weren’t waiting for a government solution.
When news came out that Gold Star Families were not receiving benefits, military-related Facebook pages banded together and began accepting donations for the Fisher House on Wednesday after receiving lots of emails and comments from people wanting to help. As of Thursday afternoon, the GoFundMe campaign had raised almost $5,000 in under 24 hours.
“I say we as veterans, military and civilians show the Fisher House our gratitude for what they have done by making a donation in the names of the fallen and their families,” the fundraising site says.
One service member writing on the website Guardian of Valor, one partner in the fundraising campaign, said that he would give up his paycheck if that’s what it took to ensure these families are cared for.
⦁ Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.
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