WASHINGTON — Under a deal reached Wednesday, families of fallen service members will receive death benefits that otherwise were delayed or lost due to a government shutdown that began nine days ago.
The Pentagon struck a deal with the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation to restore the $100,000 in death benefits, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The House, meanwhile, voted 425-0 to have the benefits restored during the shutdown.
All four Arkansas members voted in favor, but restoring the benefits was particularly important to Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who served as a platoon leader at The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
Among his duties was to fly to Dover Air Force Base, Del., with a seven-member casket team to participate in the repatriation ceremony as fallen soldiers returned from overseas to American soil.
“It is a very simple ceremony with no pomp and circumstance,” he said Wednesday.
Cotton would board the aircraft and inspect the caskets to make sure they had not been damaged in transit and that the American flag was properly draped over each. The casket team would then transfer them off the aircraft and into a hearse to be transported to the mortuary on base.
Cotton did not recall seeing any families at these ceremonies. At that time, the government did not pick up the cost for families to travel to Dover Air Force Base. The Pentagon began paying such expenses in 2009 as part of a policy change that allowed media to attend the ceremonies.
Hagel announced the restoration of the benefits at Dover Air Force Base. He traveled there Wednesday to be on hand as the remains of four soldiers killed Sunday in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan were repatriated.
“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,” Hagel said.
For now, Fisher House has offered to pay families death benefits — including a $100,000 death gratuity — that they have been promised, he said.
The death benefits are the latest in a string of shutdown casualties that House Republicans have sought to restore as the public grows more and more enraged by the budget impasse.
Rather than tackle them piecemeal, House Democrats have largely pushed to have an up-or-down vote on a stopgap funding measure that cleared the Senate that would reopen the government and give lawmakers a few months to complete a budget for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has so far refused to hold a vote on the Senate measure, saying it does not have enough support to pass. Democrats say the votes are there — and several news organizations agree — counting at least 20 House Republicans who would vote for it.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, has said he would vote in favor, but also supports other alternative ways to end the government shutdown — including the measures backed by House Republicans linking the funding approval to a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act.
Cotton is focused on passing the targeted spending bills at this point, and otherwise wants the Senate to accept the House resolution.
“In my opinion, the last continuing resolution was entirely reasonable. It asked Congress and the president to follow the same rules as everyone else under Obamacare and called for a one-year break for individuals just like is being given to business. That is still on the table, and I would support it again,” Cotton said.