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Bill to pay military death benefits heads to Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent a bill to President Barack Obama that would provide benefits for the families of fallen troops as senior Pentagon officials faced continued outrage over the department's suspension of the payments during the partial government shutdown.

By voice vote Thursday, the Senate approved a 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 said 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 government shutdown last Tuesday, and lawmakers insist that the benefits shouldn't have been affected.

In stepped a charity, the Fisher House Foundation, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday would cover the costs during the shutdown. Hagel said the Pentagon would reimburse the foundation after the shutdown ended.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday that the organization is "extraordinarily generous and they do very good work," but he pressed for Senate passage of the benefits bill to ensure the Defense Department and Fischer House wouldn't have to figure out a special work-around. The government could not actively solicit funds from private organizations but could accept an offer.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Pentagon had essentially resolved the problem and the issue was moot, but he didn't object to passage of the bill.

Across the Capitol, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale faced criticism for the department's handling of the death benefits.

"While I applaud the organizations who have stepped in 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," Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told Hale at a House hearing. "That is to find a way to treat our families with the respect and dignity they have earned."

Hale defended the department, arguing that it had no legal authority to pay death gratuities after conferring with lawyers from the Justice Department, Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon's own counsel.

Hale said that the Pentagon "will ensure that survivors of our fallen will receive these benefits."

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