A row over a freeze on payments for American servicemen killed in Afghanistan became the latest focus for the bitterly partisan budget fight between Republicans and Democrats in Washington on Wednesday, as the US government shutdown entered its ninth day. The suspension of the $100,000 "death gratuity", which is usually paid to military families to finance travel, funeral and other expenses, was condemned by both political parties, but did nothing to break the deadlock.
Veterans groups and the families of four US servicemen who died in Afghanistan last weekend spoke angrily about the lack of payments hours before the bodies were due to be handed over to next of kin at the Dover air force base in Delaware.
"If Congress were trapped in a car that sunk down in a river, I would swim to the window, and I would look them all in the eye and say, 'Suck water'," Randall Patterson, the father one of the dead soldiers, told NBC News. His son, 24-year-old Private Cody J Patterson, was killed on Sunday during combat operations in Kandahar Province, along with three others whose families also did not receive the payments.
Republicans accused the Obama administration of cynically using the delayed gratuity payments as a way to maximise the impact of the shutdown on ordinary people and build public pressure on the Republican leadership to reopen the government. John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, described the delays as "disgraceful" and tabled a Bill in the House to restore the payments. It was unclear if the Senate, which has rejected all other Republican piecemeal legislation, would pass it.
John McCain, the Republican senator and a veteran, said Congress should be "embarrassed" and "ashamed" over the payments, urging both sides to come to their senses. "We know how it's going to end," he said.
"Sooner or later the government will resume its functions. Sooner or later we will raise the debt limit. So why don't we do this sooner rather than later?" Democrats also said the delays were "shameful" but blamed them on Republicans for failing to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government.
"They [the Pentagon] should be able to pay them out, and if the Republicans are serious about it, they'll put a CR [continuing resolution] up for a vote in the House which allows us to get the government functioning again," said Carl Levin, the Democrat chairman of the Senate armed services committee. The Taliban, which is in negotiations over the future of Afghanistan when coalition forces withdraw next year, seized the chance to rub salt in America's political wounds, accusing Congress of "sucking the blood of their own people". "The American people should realise that their politicians play with their destinies as well as the destinies of other oppressed nations for the sake of their personal vested interests," it said.