WASHINGTON -- President Obama was taking emergency steps Wednesday to restore death benefits for military families that have been delayed because of the ongoing government shutdown.
The House voted 425-0 to restore the death benefits, but prospects for the same action in the Senate remained unclear.
The actions came as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Dover AIr Force Base, Del., on Wednesday to meet, before television cameras, the remains of four soldiers killed Sunday in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan.
Along with a 19-year-old Marine who died Saturday, the five are among the first whose families will not receive a $100,000 death gratuity along with other expenses unless the funding is restored or the government reopened.
Congress continued grappling with the issue, which has become a symbol of government paralyzed by opposing political views, unable to provide earned benefits even for those who have given their lives for their country.
Even if the issue of these benefits are resolved, a broader threat continues that $6.25 billion in veterans benefits could be denied to more than 5 million veterans, troops, families and children of deceased military members if the shutdown continues through the end of October, according to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"I just didn't think you would allow this happen," Shinseki told members of Congress about the shutdown during testimony Wednesday. "This is not a game."
As Congress grapples with how to keep earned benefits flowing to those who have served in uniform, events Wednesday became a mix of political theater, recriminations and a litany of dire consequences should the impasse continue.
As the shutdown continues, House Republicans have passed legislation funding individual government departments or specific needs Democrats argue that the full government should re-opened.
"What's happening now is the House of Representatives-which refuses to reopen the government-is scurrying to pass a little bill to take care of these families," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "It isn't nearly enough, because the embarrassment of this government shutdown goes beyond this grievous situation with these bereaving families."
House Republicans have approved piecemeal funding bills to reopen popular government programs and facilities, but only one measure--to make sure the U.S. military is paid during the shutdown--has been approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama.
House Republicans in an emotional floor debate blamed the Obama administration for the lapse in death benefits . "This is a disgrace. An intentional policy of pain," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a veteran.
"They broke a sacred trust with our U.S. men and women who are on the front lines," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., also a veteran.
House Democrats joined with Republicans in support of the measure, but Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations panel, called on the House to reopen the entire federal government.
According to Durbin, 17 service members have died since the shutdown began, including five over the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reiterated his insistence that the full government be up and running in a day if the House approves a Senate-passed stopgap measure to fund the government.
Republicans are holding out support because they are seeking negotiations with Democrats to reach a broader budget agreement.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, used his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber to criticize lawmakers for the lapse in death benefits, underscoring the emotional tenor of the debate. "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."
Gregg Zoroya and Susan Davis, USA TODAY/Contributing AP
The Associated Press