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War hero McCain says shutdown halts military death benefits

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) strains to hear a reporter's question as he departs the Senate floor after a late-night vote rejected budget
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) strains to hear a reporter's question as he departs the Senate floor after a late-night vote rejected budget

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator John McCain said on Tuesday that members of Congress should be "embarrassed" and "ashamed" for the suspension of death benefits for American soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan.

Speaking on the Senate floor, McCain said these $100,000 payments have been denied to at least five families because of the government shutdown, now in week two.

McCain, a former Navy flier and prisoner of war in Vietnam, said angrily that it is time for lawmakers to resolve their differences, reopen the government and figure out how to raise the U.S. debt limit, which is expected to be reached in the next 10 days or so.

"We know how it's going to end," said McCain, a five-term senator and one of the most influential members of Congress.

"Sooner or later the government will resume its functions. Sooner or later we will raise the debt limit," McCain said. "So why don't we do this sooner rather than later."

McCain said the government shutdown, triggered by partisan gridlock over Republican demands to defund or delay the new healthcare reform program as a condition of passing a spending bill, has caused Americans all sorts of suffering.

The Arizona Republican said the five families of U.S. soldiers killed last weekend in Afghanistan were hit with a "a double whammy" by the federal government: they suffered the loss of loved ones and were unable to receive the death benefits.

The $100,000 payment usually comes within a couple of days of a service member's death, helping the family grapple with the immediate financial needs before other federal government benefits become available.

The Pentagon says it is not allowed to pay these families a "death gratuity," as long as the shutdown continues.

"I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed," McCain said. "All of us should be."

McCain said it is time to end the shutdown.

"There's a number of issues that we could sit down and negotiate within an hour if we will stop attacking each other and impugning each other's integrity and honor," McCain said.

"All I can say is that let's start this afternoon," McCain pleaded.

President Barack Obama reiterated earlier in the day that he is open to negotiations with Republicans, but only after they agree to end the shutdown and raise the debt limit.

House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, rejected Obama's terms, calling it "an unconditional surrender."

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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