Death benefits would be doubled for families of soldiers killed in almost daily attacks in Iraq under legislation Congress sent to President Bush on Wednesday, just ahead of Veterans Day.
The House voted 420-0 to give final congressional approval to a bill increasing the current $6,000 benefit to $12,000 and make the payment tax-free. Lawmakers granted the death gratuity to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Military and reserve personnel steadily called for duty in Iraq also would benefit from new tax breaks on home sales, travel expenses and child care.
"It's long overdue," said Rep. Sam Johnson (search), R-Texas. "It's been a long time since 9/11, and we are trying to take care of our military."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, said he expected the president to sign the bill into law by Veterans Day on Nov. 11. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said Congress should have passed the bill months ago. Slightly varying versions bounced between the House and Senate for months, lawmakers unable to reconcile their differences.
"We, as a Congress, have a moral duty to do right by our troops and meet their sacrifices with deeds, not words," he said.
The increased death gratuity, meant to offset the cost of a funeral and other immediate expenses, combines with benefits already available to the survivors of soldiers killed in war. Families typically get payment from a $250,000 life insurance policy, a benefit that few service members choose to reduce or eliminate.
Families do not pay federal income taxes for the year the service member died. Surviving spouses, while still unmarried, and surviving children get a monthly dependency compensation payment. They are also eligible for full Social Security death and survivors' benefits.
"We made modest improvements to help the families of the members of the military who have given the supreme sacrifice," said Rep. Amo Houghton (search), R-N.Y.
Active duty and reserve personnel on standby and on their way to war stand to benefit from the bill's other changes, which lower taxes on military benefits and expenses.
Soldiers deployed away from home would find it easier to take advantage of tax breaks on capital gains when they sell their houses. The bill suspends a rule that requires homeowners to live in the house during two of the past five years to qualify for the tax break. Lawmakers said military men and women on the move often cannot meet that requirement.
The single largest new benefit goes to National Guard and Reserve forces who travel more than 100 miles from home. They could use a new tax deduction for travel and lodging costs. Those who do not itemize their tax deductions, and instead use a standard deduction, could still use the benefit. Soldiers in contingency operations that support combat zones would also get an extension to file their tax returns already available to soldiers in combat.
The bill ensures that child care and homeowners assistance provided by the military are untaxed benefits. Families with children bound for military academies would be allowed to use savings held in tax-advantaged education accounts without penalty.
Other changes relieve the families of astronauts who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia from some taxes and allow the government to lift the tax-exempt status of groups deemed terrorist organizations.
The bill balances $1.2 billion in expanded benefits and new tax cuts with an extension of customs fees, so it has no cost to the U.S. Treasury.