An angry Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday announced an agreement to enable the Fisher House Foundation to advance the money for the Pentagon to resume making quick $100,000 payments to relatives of deceased military members and veterans.
Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of the foundation, said the nonprofit, nonpartisan group felt duty-bound to fill the breach caused by the partial shutdown that began last week.
"After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the result of political squabbling," Fisher said.
President Barack Obama said he had directed Hagel to get the payments started again.
"I'm not going to wait for Congress, and I asked Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, to go ahead and fix it, and it's going to get fixed today," Obama told NBC's affiliate station in Tampa, Fla.
Furious lawmakers, veterans and others had written Hagel letters about the suspended death benefits, which the Pentagon normally wires to bank accounts of surviving relatives within three days of the death of anyone who served in the U.S. military.
The Republican-controlled House voted unanimously to approve emergency funding for the death benefits, with the Democratic-majority Senate expected to pass the measure.
After gaining congressional passage and Obama's signature, the law would authorize the Pentagon to start its normal practice of wiring $100,000 into survivors' bank accounts to help cover funeral costs and other expenses.
Until the law is enacted, the Fisher House, based in Rockville, Md., near Washington, will fill the breach and later be reimbursed for the death benefit payments after the shutdown ends, Hagel said.
Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and the highest--ranking Republican in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, said Fisher House had made the offer to cover the payments.
"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.
Angered lawmakers, veterans and others had written Hagel letters about the suspended death benefits, which the Pentagon normally wires to bank accounts of surviving relatives within three days of the death of anyone who served in the U.S. military.
Hagel said the Pentagon had halted the payments after the shutdown began at midnight Sept. 30 because its lawyers determined that the agency lacked the authority to make them.
Seventeen current or former military members had died since the shutdown started, among them five slain during combat in Afghanistan.
The Fisher House has built or donated 61 homes around the world since 1991 to provide temporary lodging to relatives of hospitalized soldiers or veterans.
"In this government shutdown, the one group we don't want to see suffer are the families of the fallen," said Cindy Campbell, spokeswoman for the foundation.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a first-term Democrat from West Virginia, approached the Foundation House about the suspended payments Tuesday, and it then made arrangements with the Defense Department, Campbell said.
Manchin expressed gratitude to the foundation.
"It is a shame that this shutdown is falling on the backs of our military families who have already given so much for this great country," Manchin said.