For death benefits problem, a 'creative' Washington solution

A new deal between the Pentagon and a non-profit organization means that families of fallen soldiers will get the benefits they were promised, despite the government shutdown. But it also means that a Senate vote on a House-passed fix was bypassed.

The fix – a partnership with the Fisher House Foundation, which will be covering the $100,000 “death gratuity” payments until the shutdown is over – came about overnight after President Barack Obama suggested a “creative” solution to the problem during an evening walk Tuesday night with chief of staff Denis McDonough.

Without that deal, hatched by Office of Management and Budget and Pentagon officials, the only way to resume the payments – McDonough told the president – was by reopening the government or passing legislation through Congress.

Since the suspension of the benefit was detailed in a series of NBC News reports, the GOP-led House took the lead on a legislative fix, unanimously passing a measure to restore the funding by Tuesday afternoon.

But the Fisher House deal, announced moments after the lower chamber voted, meant that the Senate could skip a vote on the plan.


The Senate could have approved the House-passed legislation as soon as the lower chamber OK’d it, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked colleagues to wait to see if the White House came up with a solution on its own.

At about 2:20 p.m. ET, top Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tried to introduce a measure that would have allowed swift unanimous approval for the House’s death benefits legislation.

“The president's spokesman today said he's looking for a solution and we're here to offer one to him,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor, referencing White House press secretary Jay Carney’s statement that president was seeking a quick fix for the problem. “Washington has not gotten a lot right lately but now's our chance.”

Reid responded by asking Cornyn to renew his request at 4 p.m. ET “if it hasn’t been done” by that time.

“On this issue, that’s the way to proceed,” Reid added. “We can do something together.”

But the Senate vote never came, since the Fisher House plan was revealed shortly after the exchange.

The death benefits bill wasn’t controversial; it would have easily passed the Democratic-led Senate, but putting the House’s legislation up for a vote would have also broken the now-familiar pattern of the past week.

Reid has declined to put a total of 11 House-passed “piecemeal” funding bills up for a vote, arguing that the only acceptable way to fund popular government programs is to stop the shutdown entirely.

Those piecemeal bills addressed funding for items often described as Democratic pet projects, like funding for Head Start, the National Institutes of Health and national parks. But Reid and Obama have indicated that those funding bills are too narrow to fix the overall problems of the ongoing government shutdown.

Reid appears to even be holding a tougher line than the White House. The administration said that it “strongly supported” a House-passed measure to approve back pay for furloughed federal workers, and it urged “swift” passage of the bill. Reid has not yet put that measure up for a vote.

It was clear early Wednesday that Democrats were looking for a way to solve the problem that could bypass the upper chamber.

In an interview, Obama told Florida TV station WFLA that he did not want to “wait” for legislative action.

“I just said administratively, I’m not going to wait for Congress,” he said. “And I asked Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, to go ahead and fix it and it’s going to get fixed today.”

Spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama was “not pleased” when he heard of the delayed payments to military families and that he directed White House lawyers, the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon to come up with a solution.

“The president expects this to be fixed today,” Carney said.

Reid also signaled during a press conference that he would look to the Pentagon and the White House for a solution, although he pledged that the problem would be restored, “without any question.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd and Kasie Hunt contributed.