WH Pressed: When Did Obama Know Military Death Benefits Halted?

By Susan Jones | October 10, 2013 | 6:48am EDT

White House press secretary Jay Carney briefs reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) - President Obama was "very disturbed" to learn that the Defense Department would not pay death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers, a White House spokesman said Wednesday. But if the Defense Department knew this several weeks ago, why didn't the president? When did President Obama learn about the problem?

White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked that question at least six times on Wednesday, but he wouldn't or couldn't say.

The most persistent questioner was Fox News's Ed Henry:

"Jay, when did the president learn specifically that the military death benefits would not be paid?," Henry asked Carney.

"Ed, I don't know specifically. I can tell you that when he learned that these benefits were not explicitly dealt with in the Pay our Military Act, he was very disturbed, and he asked for the OMB and his lawyers to take action."

"So why didn't he have that action taken before today, though?" Henry asked.

"You have to work out a process," Carney said. "Unless you're willing to write the check, Ed -- I mean, you know, we -- it takes some time -- it takes some time to --

Henry tried again: "Why won't you tell us what day he learned? Was it yesterday, the day before?

"Ed, what I can tell you is when the president...when the president found out, he was disturbed, and he asked his lawyers and the OMB to get to work on a solution, and we expect a solution today..." Carney then blamed Republicans for shutting down the government in the first place.

"But you won't tell simple fact of when the president learned," Henry said. "You're trying to say --

"I'm saying --"

"He's outraged by it, so he wants to move quickly," Henry interrupted. "If he learned last week --"

"I'm saying that when he learned about it, he asked for -- directed those who work for him to find a solution, and we expect a solution today," Carney said. "What I haven't seen is a solution from Congress, but the president will have one today."

Another reporter asked Carney to find out when President Obama learned about the military spousal benefits: "Can you take the question and get back to us? Because I think we need to know specifically --" the reporter said.

"I will take the question," Carney replied. "What I can tell you again is that the commander in chief, when he found out -- he was disturbed and he directed those who work for him to find a solution, because the shutdown, as Congress was informed, makes DOD legally unable to pay these benefits. The president wants a solution."

"And I think we need to know if he found out today or if it was yesterday or several days ago," a reporter said. "If you can just take the question --"

"Again, and what I can tell you is when he found out, he directed that action be taken. And we expect a solution today."

Carney told reporters several times that the Defense Department had informed Congress that military spousal benefits were "not explicitly addressed" in the Pay Our Military Act, which Congress passed and President Obama signed. The law gives the Defense Department latitude to pay its bills and to recall furloughed civilian workers.

Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale told a Pentagon briefing on Oct. 5, “We have some heart-rending situations -- that we are not allowed, by law, to pay death gratuities.  They are not a paid allowance, and unfortunately, that -- we will still be unable to pay them, due to (the Pay Our Military Act) or even after (the Pay Our Military Act)."

Carney told reporters on Wednesday, "None of this would be an issue if the government were open, OK?" He said Obama "is doing the right thing as commander in chief and making sure that it's resolved."

"He didn't find out until yesterday that this was not being addressed?" a reporter asked Carney.

"Again, I think I've just been pretty clear about the process here. Congress was informed, as it was informed of all of the consequences of shutdown. And, you know, they are many, as we see. And, you know, the solution to all of this is not the piecemeal reaction to them or, you know, Band-aid approach to solving them; it's opening the government at funding levels Republicans set."

Another reporter asked Carney if President Obama thought the Pay Our Military Act covered spousal death benefits when he signed the bill into law.

"What I'm saying is when he learned of this problem, he was disturbed, and directed the Department of Defense to work with OMB and his lawyers to develop a possible solution. And at his direction, they are finding a solution, and we expect one today."

The outrage over this issue allowed President Obama to once again blast House Republicans on Wednesday:

"The theory that we should shut down the government as a negotiation tactic should never have been done in the first place and it does a disservice to all the men and women in uniform and all those veterans who sacrificed for our freedom," Obama told the NBC affiliate in Tampa Bay, Fla.  He said that he had "asked Chuck Hagel...to go ahead and fix it."

The House, meanwhile, passed a bill on Wednesday specifying that the spousal death benefits must be paid. But the Senate has refused to pass any piecemeal legislation.

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