Washington (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama signed a measure into law reinstating U.S. military death benefits to families of soldiers killed on duty that had been halted by the government shutdown.
The Senate passed the mini funding bill by unanimous consent earlier in the day, following approval by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Obama’s move, announced in a brief statement from the White House, marks the end of a deeply embarrassing development for the administration, feuding lawmakers and the Pentagon, which was forced to turn to a private charity to fund the benefits after the shutdown suspended them.
That announcement Wednesday came hours after Obama demanded urgent congressional action and as the plight of four families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan grabbed headlines, sparking public outrage.
“What I think we did here was the right thing to do,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat whose party has vehemently opposed the Republican strategy of passing piecemeal funding bills to open certain parts of the government.
“We are trying to put out these little fires, spare the American people of the pain and injustice that’s coming about as a result of this shutdown.”
Since October 1, when the shutdown began due to a bitter budget impasse, 29 troops have been killed, according to the Pentagon.
As of Wednesday, none of their families had received the funds.
Fisher House Foundation, a private charity devoted to helping combat veterans, had agreed to finance the death benefits. The Pentagon will reimburse the group once government funding is restored.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed disgust that political deadlock in Congress had forced the extraordinary step.
“I am offended, outraged and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” he said.
The White House has accused Republicans of causing the problem by shutting down federal operations with a failure to pass a new budget before October 1, and for not including the provision in a bill signed by Obama to ensure soldiers on deployment still get paid during the stalemate.
Republican lawmakers in turn blamed the president and his fellow Democrats for the shutdown and for the suspension of death benefit payments.
Relatives of soldiers killed on the battlefield abroad or on duty at home are normally entitled to $100,000 in death benefits to cover housing allowances, as well as costs for the burial and dignified transfer of remains.
With Washington bickering over the budget, Hagel traveled Wednesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to pay his respects to four soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan.