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Congress restores US military death benefits

A US Army carry team carries the flag-draped transfer case with the remains of Army Sergeant Jamar A. Hicks across the tarmac during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base August 14, 2013 in Dover, Delaware
A US Army carry team carries the flag-draped transfer case with the remains of Army Sergeant Jamar A. Hicks across the tarmac during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base August 14, 2013 in Dover, Delaware

Congress moved Thursday to reinstate US military death benefits, after the government shutdown halted the payments to grieving families of US soldiers killed on duty.

The Senate passed the mini funding bill by unanimous consent one day after the House of Representatives approved the measure. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The passage could mark the end of a deeply embarrassing development for the administration, feuding lawmakers and the Pentagon, which was forced to turn to a private charity Wednesday to fund the death benefits after the government shutdown suspended the payments.

That announcement 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 began, 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 while the Pentagon would reimburse the group once government funding was restored.

But 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 already signed by Obama to ensure soldiers on deployment still get paid during the shutdown.

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.

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