Sen. John McCain speaks on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
The Senate sat in almost total silence Tuesday as two of its most respected members denounced the suspension of a benefit that helps families of fallen soldiers meet their flag-draped coffins — an unexpected side effect of the government shutdown.
The benefit, known as the death gratuity, wires $100,000 to families to help them cover funeral costs and travel to receive the bodies of their loved ones. It was left unpaid to the families of five American service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and a veteran himself, told his colleagues that they should be ashamed.
“Shouldn’t we as a body, Republican or Democrat — shouldn’t we be embarrassed? Ashamed?” he asked. “What do American people think when they see that death benefit for those who served and sacrifice — they're not eligible?”
Waving a copy of a news story about the suspension, he said: “I’m ashamed! I’m embarrassed. All of us should be.”
Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, called a rare live quorum in the Senate and joined McCain in the denunciation. In a live quorum, the leader instructs the sergeant-at-arms to get the whole Senate to show up on the floor.
It is usually used to force senators to cast a vote one way or the other. In this case, Reid did it simply for speeches. So it meant that most members of the chamber were sitting at their desks and watching — rare for speeches in the Senate.
The Senate drama came during a day of building outrage over the suspension of the death gratuity. Veterans groups said they were disgusted, and military families said it was inexcusable.
Members of Congress seemed taken by surprise that it had happened at all.
Congress passed a law last week to pay the military during the shutdown. Pentagon officials studied it to assess whether it might cover the death gratuity and determined that it was not possible, a defense official told NBC News on Tuesday.
Republican aides in Congress said that they were drafting legislation to restore the death gratuity, and that it could be put to a vote as early as Wednesday. The aides also said that they believed that last week’s law had covered the payment.
"We gave broad authority to the Department of Defense to pay all kinds of bills including this," Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday afternoon. "And frankly I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits. But again tomorrow the House is going to act specifically on this and I hope the President will sign it."
“I would say it’s wrong, and it’s going to be fixed,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., whose district includes a heavy military constituency.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from the same state, addressed military families and said: “Your government has let you down in a time of need. There’s no excuse for this.” He added: “This is not an acceptable way to run the most powerful nation in the world.”
For now, however, the $100,000 payment, meant to tide families over until military survivor benefits kick in, is being withheld for relatives of the fallen.
Seventeen service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, a senior defense official said, including six in Afghanistan. None of the families of the 17 received the death gratuity.
Kasie Hunt of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published October 8 2013, 3:06 PM