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Lawmakers Seek to Award Casualty Benefits to Fort Hood Victims

The body of Spc. Fred Greene arrives at Tennessee airport

The body of the Tennessee soldier who was killed in the shooting spree at Fort Hood was flown to his hometown and escorted through some of his favorite places in East Tennessee. Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009.(AP)

A Texas lawmaker is calling for the victims of the Fort Hood massacre to be legally recognized as combatant casualties, a distinction that could intensify a debate over whether the incident should be deemed a terrorist attack.

Republican Rep. John Carter, who represents the Fort Hood area, plans to introduce the legislation Tuesday that would grant the 13 Army and civilian officers killed and 29 wounded the same legal status as combatant casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The status would allow military personnel to receive the Purple Heart and civilians to receive the civilian equivalent award, the Secretary of Defense Medal of Freedom. The status would also provide the maximum life insurance benefit available, among other benefits, to the beneficiaries of all the military officers who were killed in the attack.

"They were basically taken out early in the combat," he said. "They should have a Purple Heart."

At a news conference announcing the legislation, Carter said he views the shooting as a "terrorist attack on American soil."

"I think we should call things what they are," he said. "I don't think we should worry about hurting people's feelings. No one is saying the term terrorism has the word Muslim in it at any point."

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was charged on Thursday with the shooting spree. Army investigators have said Hasan is the only suspect and could face additional charges.

But a political dispute has broken out over whether the shooting rampage should be called a terrorist attack. Republicans say the evidence, including the suspect's ties to a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen, clearly points to one, but Democrats caution that it is not yet clear what his motives were.

"It would be inappropriate and premature to jump to conclusions on this matter," Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement last week. 

"I am disappointed that some have rushed to the news media with unfounded information in order to gain headlines. I hope that my colleagues will refrain from speculation, pray for those who were affected by this tragic incident and let investigators do their work," Reyes said.

A joint terrorism task force overseen by the FBI learned late last year of Hasan's repeated contact with the cleric, who encouraged Muslims to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. The FBI said the task force did not refer early information about Hasan to superiors because it concluded he wasn't linked to terrorism.

But other signs are emerging that suggest that conclusion may have been premature. For instance, Hasan sought to have some of his patients prosecuted for war crimes based on statement they made during psychiatric sessions with him, a captain who served on the base told the Dallas Morning News this week.

President Obama on Saturday urged Congress to hold off on any investigation of the shooting until federal law enforcement and military authorities have finished their probes, and the administration has not made available any officials to testify on Capitol Hill.

During an eight-day Asia trip, Obama implored lawmakers to "resist the temptation to turn this tragic event into the political theater," adding that those who died on the country's largest Army post deserve justice, not political stagecraft.

John Stone, a spokesman for Carter, told FoxNews.com that the legislation has already drawn bipartisan support -- from about 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans thus far. But Stone could not immediately identify who those lawmakers were.

One of those Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, is supporting the legislation, he said because believes the victims and their families have earned those benefits, Ortiz spokesman Jose Borjon told FoxNews.com.

But Borjon stopped short of saying Ortiz believes the incident was a terrorist attack or that the legislation reflects that.

"We're drawing the line," he said. "It's still too early to comment" on whether the incident should be deemed a terrorist attack.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Monday that the attack is "tragic and disturbing" but he didn't think it would become partisan.

"Whether or not it occurred under the Bush administration or President Obama, it doesn't matter. It don't think this is a partisan issue," Hoyer said. "All of us share extraordinary sorrow. This is tragic and disturbing. And we ought to look at which signs there were there. I don't know that there were such signs."

Stone said he didn't expect any opposition to the bill from lawmakers because it's not intended for investigation purposes or to pin blame but rather to help the victims of the attack.

"This is a nonpartisan issue," he said, adding that congressional investigations will eventually be held. "Right now, we need to get these benefits to the troops and their families."

Carter said at the news conference that he expected some opposition from the Pentagon

"But I expect this to be popular with the American soldier," he said.

Fox News' Justin Fishel and Steve Centanni contributed to this report.