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Senate quietly passes 'death gratuity' bill

A day after the Department of Defense and the White House came up with a “creative” solution to restore death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers, the Senate quietly passed legislation to continue funding for the program. 

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The House passed a bill Wednesday that would have funded the $100,000 emergency payments to the families of deceased service members despite the ongoing government shutdown. But the non-profit Fisher House announced almost immediately after the vote that it would step in to continue the funding instead, a workaround devised after President Barack Obama asked the Department of Defense to find a “creative” way to continue the program. 

It's unclear now if the president will sign the Senate-passed legislation, since the White House still says that the Fisher House deal solves the problem. 

"The legislation is not necessary," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday, calling the GOP strategy of passing individual bills to address some of the most heavily publicized consequences of the shutdown "preposterous." 

After the president said Wednesday that he’d sign on to the Fisher House plan, the Senate did not immediately take up the House-passed bill. 

But early Thursday afternoon, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, came to the Senate floor to ask that the upper chamber approve the House-passed measure anyway.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded that the move would be “moot” because of the Fisher House program, and the vote would be only “for show.”

“The death benefit issue has been resolved,” he said. “The Department of Defense stepped forward and took care of everything, and so this issue is largely moot.”

But Reid did not object, saying he would allow the move to approve the legislation “if my friend from Texas feels more comfort as a result of doing this, which I think is unnecessary.”

Moments later, the legislation was considered unanimously approved. 

The approval breaks a pattern of the past week, when Reid has repeatedly declined to bring up House-passed bills to fund small and popular segments of the government like funding for national parks, Head Start and veterans’ benefits. Democrats say that those “piecemeal” measures fail to solve the larger problems of the ongoing shutdown.

Cornyn tried to suggest that Reid’s acquiescence on the death benefits bill means there might be a break in that strategy.

“Maybe that [vote] paves the way to open up for some other narrow bills until we can come together on a larger bill” to reopen the government, he said.

But another top Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, reiterated that Democrats won’t accept the GOP strategy of passing other small appropriations bills during the shutdown.

“We need to open the government, serve our people, spare them the injustice and pain that comes from this Republican shutdown,” he said.

The move came as a top Defense official came under fire by House Republicans, who said that the Pentagon has tried to maximize "pain" on members of the military and contractors during the ongoing shutdown. 

"You went out of your way at every possible turn to make this as ugly as possible- to inflict as much pain as possible on this Department," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., told Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill. 

"I resent your remarks," Hale replied. "I acted on the advice of attorneys and the best reading of a loosely worded law."

NBC's Katie Wall contributed to this report.