- The Washington Times
Wednesday, October 9, 2013

President Obama and Congress scrambled Wednesday to reinstate death benefits for families of American troops killed in action, with the White House saying Mr. Obama was shocked to learn his Defense Department wasn’t paying the death gratuity because of the government shutdown.

The House unanimously passed a bill to authorize payment of the gratuity, while Mr. Obama ordered the Pentagon to find a way to immediately begin paying the gratuity, which amounts to $100,000 to cover funeral costs and immediate needs.

Each side blamed the other for the foul-up, but made no substantive progress toward ending the broader shutdown as Day Nine tolled.

House Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had a meeting that produced no new path forward. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama held an evening meeting at the White House with House Democrats, some of whom have broken with him and backed the Republican strategy of funding parts of the government.

He will meet with Senate Democrats and a group of House Republican leaders Thursday.

The most substantive move of the day came from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, who wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing the outlines of issues that could be tackled in a broad spending and debt deal.

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“The president is giving Congress the silent treatment. He’s refusing to talk, even though the federal government is about to hit the debt ceiling,” the Wisconsin Republican wrote. “That’s a shame — because this doesn’t have to be another crisis. It could be a breakthrough.”

He said the two sides could agree on cutting some tax loopholes, charging higher Medicare premiums for wealthy Americans, and having federal employees pay more toward their retirement packages.

He pointedly did not mention attacking Obamacare, the health program that helped ignite the government shutdown when Republicans insisted it be defunded or scaled back before they would agree to pass a bill to keep the rest of government open.

That health fight is now being overshadowed by the $16.7 trillion debt limit, which the Treasury Department says the government will be unable to avoid come Oct. 17.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is slated to testify early Thursday morning about what steps he will have to take if the ceiling is reached.

The shutdown is making all sides look bad in Washington, though Republicans are suffering the most.

Gallup’s polling found Republicans’ approval rating at just 28 percent, which is a 10 percentage-point drop from September, and marks the lowest level Gallup has ever seen for a political party since it began asking the question in 1992. The previous low was 31 percent, for the GOP in 1999.

By contrast, 43 percent have a favorable view of the Democratic Party in the Gallup poll.

Faced with those poor numbers, both sides were scrambling to undo the cutoff of the death benefits for troops killed in action.

“The president was very disturbed to learn of this problem,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “The president expects this to be fixed today. He was not pleased.”

House Republicans said they believed they had given the administration the authority to pay death benefits in a bill Congress passed last week and that Mr. Obama signed to make sure the troops get paid during the shutdown.

But the Pentagon initially disagreed, saying the death benefits weren’t explicitly authorized, so it halted them.

Mr. Carney said the Defense Department had warned Congress the benefits would lapse, he said he didn’t know when the president learned of the problem.

Asked why nobody warned Mr. Obama of the problem when he signed the bill last week, Mr. Carney replied, “The Republicans shut the government down. None of this would be an issue if the government were open, OK?”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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