The White House is pledging to provide a solution by the end of Wednesday to restore death benefits for military families.
Those benefits, which usually come in the form of a $100,000 check to families whose loved one died in Afghanistan and other combat operations, have been halted during the shutdown, sparking outrage among some lawmakers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama was “disturbed” when he found about the problem and has ordered the Office of Management and Budget and White House lawyers to fix it by the end of the day.
Under repeated questioning by reporters, Carney would not say when the president found out that the Treasury and the Department of Defense were hamstrung by the government shutdown and could not pay the benefits, known as the “death gratuity.”
Congress passed and Obama signed the Pay Our Military Act last week. The bill allows for active duty soldiers and civilian military personnel supporting the armed forces to go on working and receiving their pay despite the military shutdown. The bill did not address the issue of paying the death benefits.
Lawmakers' frustration boiled over Tuesday.
“I say to those families, 'Your government's let you down at a time when you're in need,'” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. “There is not excuse for this.”
On the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed.”
When pressed, Carney placed the blame squarely on House Republicans, whom he said did not address the death benefit problem in the military pay bill last week.
“It's unconscionable that the government of the United States would not pay these benefits to our veterans and that House Republicans would not pass a clean funding bill and re-open the government so these benefits and others can be paid,” he said.
Earlier, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki highlighted the government shutdown's impact on veterans, saying that the department has been forced to end overtime pay for staff who have helped reduce a record-high backlog of veterans claims.
Shinseki testified before Congress that the shutdown has forced the department to end overtime for claims processors last week. That mandatory overtime, he said, has helped reduce the disability claims backlog approximately 31 percent to 418,500 on Sept. 30 from the March peak of 611,000.
Carney echoed the argument during his daily briefing with reporters Wednesday. He said the VA has furloughed more than 10,000 employees during the shutdown.
“Our nation's veterans have done their job for this country,” Carney said. “It's time for Congress to do its job and pass a clean continuing resolution to reopen the federal government and fund these benefits.”
Republicans countered that the GOP-led House has passed nine short-term funding bills to fund different parts of the government, including one that would re-open the Veterans Affairs Department and end the furloughs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked those bills.
“The House already passed a bill to fund Veterans programs,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell, he said, last week called on Reid to bring it to the floor for a vote, but Reid refused.
“Maybe Carney should give him a call,” Stewart said.
Reid and other Democrats have said Congress should not pick and choose which departments to fund and have called on Republicans to pass a clean spending bill without partisan attachments that would fund the entire federal government.