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House votes 425-0 to restore death benefits for fallen soldiers

The House voted unanimously on Wednesday to restore the financial payments the Department of Defense makes to the families of fallen U.S. soldiers.

Members easily passed the bill after the Pentagon said it can no longer make the payments because of the government shutdown. The Honoring the Families of Fallen Soldiers Act, H.J.Res. 91, was approved in a 425-0 vote.

The bipartisan bill was quickly developed and rushed to the floor this week after the Pentagon said it could no longer make "death gratuity" payments to families after Oct. 1 because of the government shutdown. 

That announcement prompted immediate anger from members of both parties, although the parties split on the cause of the problem.

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Democrats agreed with the idea of ensuring continued death gratuity payments. But some warned that the problem was caused by the government shutdown, and said Republicans should pass the Senate's clean continuing resolution to avoid problems like this in the weeks ahead.

During floor debate, Republicans said a bill passed on Sept. 30, the Pay Our Military Act, was meant to cover death benefits and was misinterpreted by the administration.

"Who would have ever thought that some lawyer in the Pentagon would say that the death and other benefits we're talking about today would not be included in that?" Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said. Thornberry said that it made sense to call up the bill quickly rather than fight with Defense Department lawyers, who have insisted that they have no authority under the law to make the payments.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) used the debate to apologize to the families of survivors who have been denied survivor benefits so far.

"From the bottom of my heart, I apologize for the shameful act of the administration's lawyers in determining that what we passed last month does not count for paying this death benefit," he said. "When the lawyers in the administration made the decision to not count the death benefit, they broke a sacred trust with our U.S. military men and women and those on the front lines."

Earlier in the week, Hunter wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accusing the Pentagon of making a "careless legal interpretation."

The Defense Department benefits include a $100,000 payment to the family of the deceased, a housing allowance and burial services.

Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) said the Pay Our Military Act only deals with about 40 percent of the Defense Department's funding needs. He said the problem of the death gratuity payments "is but a slice of the 60 percent that unfortunately the government of the United States has now not dealt with since the beginning of the fiscal year."

Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) agreed that more problems will come up.

"The majority is once again proposing an approach that addresses today's problem, but leaves the over-arching crisis before us unresolved," she said. "The Republican shutdown and piecemeal plan is damaging to the Department of Defense."

The House vote came on the same day that the Obama administration said it would try to fix the problem administratively. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was "very disturbed" that payments have been halted, and said a fix should be in place by today.

It's unclear whether that will be enough to stop the Senate from voting on the bill, given the anger on both sides in the last few days.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), said Congress needs to make sure that full benefits are given to families who send their sons and daughters into battle.

"We have a solemn duty to take care of our troops and their families, especially as we remain a nation at war," he said. 

In a separate vote, the House approved another "mini" spending bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Flight Safety Act, H.J.Res. 90, would provide funding for more than 6,000 aviation safety inspectors who are now furloughed under the shutdown. It would also fund workers who certify aircraft, train new air traffic controllers and modernize air traffic control systems.

The House approved the resolution in a 252-172 vote that attracted 23 Democrats. But Senate Democrats have said they would not consider any of these narrow bills being passed by the House.

— This story was corrected Thursday to include the correct bill number for the Flight Safety Act.