(NBC NEWS) -- 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
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
Waving a copy of a news story about the suspension, he said: "I'm ashamed! I'm embarrassed. All of us should be."
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.
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
"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
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."
now, however, the $100,000 payment, meant to tide families over until
military survivor benefits kick in, is being withheld for relatives of
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
Kasie Hunt of NBC News contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Tue Oct 8, 2013 3:56 PM EDT
By Erin McClam, Staff Writer, NBC News