The Washington Post
The Senate on Wednesday voted to override President Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue the Saudi Arabian government over its alleged support for the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
The vote was 97 to 1.
The House is expected to vote Thursday and if successful, it will be the first time Congress has overridden a veto during the Obama administration.
“Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who co-authored the bill with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said in a statement. “I hope the House will quickly follow suit tomorrow so that the families can have the day in court they deserve.”
Critics of a bill are now focusing on how to scale back the measure once it becomes law.
“We see the writing on the wall: the override is going to occur,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been leading efforts to negotiate a narrower alternative.
Corker is one of several members who argue the bill, which would allow courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in situations involving acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, is so broad that it could expose the United States to retaliation in foreign courts.
He complained that if the bill becomes law “what you really do is you end up exporting your foreign policy to trial lawyers,” adding that U.S. personnel might find themselves dragged into lawsuits abroad over American drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or even its support for Israel.
Lawmakers might be more open to scaling back the measure after observing the “blowback” once the legislation becomes law, Corker argued. He said he is working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) — who also announced his intention to support the override Wednesday — in the hopes that “during the lame duck, maybe there’s a way to be successful in tightening this up.”
The Saudi government has denied it had any ties to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks and has lobbied fiercely against the bill. But victims’ families have pushed for the legislation so they can press their case in courts and lawmakers who support the measure argue if the Saudis did nothing wrong they have nothing to worry about.
Both chambers passed the measure without dissent earlier this year, but now many lawmakers are echoing the White House’s argument that the legislation could set a dangerous precedent, inviting other nations to respond by suing American diplomats, military personnel and other officials in foreign courts.
In a letter Monday to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned that allowing the bill to become law risked “damaging our close and effective cooperation with other countries” and “could ultimately have a chilling effect on our own counter-terrorism efforts.”
Thornberry and Smith both circulated letters among members in the last few days, urging them to vote against overriding the veto.
CIA Director John O. Brennan also warned of the 9/11 bill’s “grave implications for the national security of the United States” in a statement Wednesday.
But on Tuesday, many Senators dismissed the national security concerns raised by the administration.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters she had not decided how she would vote, but she is not concerned the legislation would put any military personnel at risk.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was going to vote to override the president’s veto because “it’s the right thing to do.”
While White House staffers have reached out to certain members of Congress, President Obama did not launch an all-out lobbying push to pull members away from this bill.
“I know of no counting or anything they’ve asked me to do on that,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. Pelosi intends to vote to override Obama’s veto.
The bill’s authors, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), have not warmed to any of the alternative proposals critics are floating.
“What I’ve seen proposed doesn’t make the grade,” Schumer said.
One alternative lawmakers have discussed is limiting the measure to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as a way of satisfying the demands of the 9/11 victims’ families without opening the United States to continuing diplomatic and legal problems.
But Cornyn dismissed the idea Congress will revisit the legislation later this year.
“As far as I’m concerned this bill is a done deal,” Cornyn said. “Obviously any senator or group of senators can offer any additional legislation they want, and we’ll take it up in due course.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.