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Obama signs bill to pay death benefits to families of fallen soldiers

 

President Obama signed a bill late Thursday to pay death benefits to families of fallen soldiers during the partial government shutdown.

The move came after the White House drew heavy criticism from Republicans over White House press secretary Jay Carney's comment earlier in the day that  it was "not necessary" to sign the bill since a charity already had stepped in to foot the expenses.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday afternoon, after it cleared the House a day earlier. The bill  reinstated the $100,000 "death gratuity" payments to military families and resumed funeral and burial expenses.

 The funding had been suspended as a consequence of the partial government shutdown. 

 Carney claimed the bill was "not necessary," noting that charity group The Fisher House Foundation had just entered into an agreement with the Pentagon a day earlier to provide the benefits in the short-term. 

"The legislation is not necessary," Carney said, adding that the Defense Department had already agreed to reimburse the Fisher House. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who pushed the bill in the Senate, blasted the White House over Carney's remark. 

"Now, we're learning the president has taken his political obstinacy to a new low and believes the legislation Congress has passed to right this wrong is 'not necessary,'" he said in a written statement. "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. 

"I call on the president to sign this necessary legislation without delay. Anything less would represent dereliction of duty by our commander in chief," he said. 

By voice vote Thursday, the Senate approved the measure that would reinstate benefits for surviving family members, including funeral and burial expenses, and death gratuity payments. The Pentagon typically pays out $100,000 within three days of a service member's death. 

Twenty-nine members of the military have died on active duty since the government shutdown began last Tuesday. 

The Pentagon infuriated congressional Republicans and Democrats and touched off a national firestorm when it claimed earlier that a law allowing the military to be paid during the partial government shutdown did not cover the death benefit payments. Congress passed and Obama signed that measure into law before the partial government shutdown last Tuesday, and lawmakers insist that the benefits shouldn't have been affected. 

Despite the Senate vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sided with the White House. He said the voice vote was "for show" and the Pentagon had essentially resolved the problem. He said the issue was moot, but he didn't object to passage of the bill. 

Across the Capitol, Republicans on a House Armed Services panel excoriated Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, accusing him of playing politics with his interpretation of the original law. They said the law was designed to pay the death benefits as well as keep all Defense Department civilians on the job -- not to select the most essential. 

"You went out of your way to make this as ugly as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible on this department," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the first bill days before the shutdown in an attempt to exempt the military. 

Hale responded that the law was poorly written and there never should have been a shutdown in the first place. 

"I resent your remarks," the budget chief said. "I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law." 

He said it was "not a political judgment -- we were trying to do what the law said." 

The chairman of the House subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told Hale that while he welcomed the charity organization's help "to fill this senseless void created by government lawyers narrowly interpreting the law, it is Secretary Hagel's responsibility to make the hard policy judgment and to do the right thing. That is to find a way to treat our families with the respect and dignity they have earned." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.