President Obama is expected to veto a bill Congress approved without objection that would allow families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government, a White House spokesman said Monday.
The president has opposed the bill, which would let courts waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, over fears that foreign governments might exploit the move to drag American officials into court.
Yet the White House's effort to stop the widely-popular measure from becoming law might be short-lived: congressional leaders have already suggested they would try to override a veto, and probably have sufficient support in both chambers to do so.
"It's not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats, U.S. service members or even U.S. companies into courts all around the world," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing, just hours before Obama was scheduled to meet with the congressional leaders of both parties at the White House.
"The president feels quite strongly about this," Earnest said. "I do anticipate the president will veto the legislation when it is presented to him."
The House passed the legislation by voice vote Friday, with members calling it a “moral imperative” to allow victims’ families to seek justice for the deaths of loved ones. Obama and other political leaders on Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and damaged the Pentagon.
The Senate had approved the legislation in May.
On Sunday, a group of Sept. 11 victims' relatives sent an open letter to Obama, imploring him not to "slam the door shut and abandon us" by vetoing the bill.
But the White House has long argued that there are bigger issues at play than the pending lawsuit by the victims' families. Officials have stressed the need to maintain the tradition of extending sovereign immunity to foreign officials, for the sake of ensuring American officials don't become subject to foreign lawsuits, or worse.
There are also concerns about how the measure might complicate relations with Saudi Arabia. Earlier this summer, Congress released a set of previously classified pages from a congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, exploring allegations that Saudi officials supported the perpetrators. But the pages shed no significant new light on Saudi Arabia's alleged ties to the attacks.
Saudi Arabia has been lobbying hard against the legislation, even threatening to sell off U.S. assets if the measure becomes law. Supporters of the bill have repeatedly argued that if Saudi officials did nothing wrong, then the government has no reason to oppose the measure.
Earnest said Obama was likely to explain his objections to congressional leaders Monday. The president "has a pretty persuasive case to make," the spokesman said.
Some lawmakers were still hopeful after Earnest's announcement that Obama might change his mind. In a statement, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he hoped the administration "will rethink vetoing this bill," for the sake of victims' families who "have suffered so much and fought so hard for justice."
Earnest acknowledged that Obama's stance could anger the families of Americans who perished in the terrorist attacks 15 years ago.
"I think that’s possible," Earnest said. "But again I think the president’s words and deeds when it comes to standing up for the interests of 9/11 families speak for themselves." He cited the U.S. military raid, authorized by the president, that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, among other things.
Obama's first meeting with both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) since February comes a week after lawmakers returned to Washington from a seven-week summer recess and a few days after Obama returned from a nine-day trip to Asia. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also will attend, according to the White House.
White House officials said the president intends to discuss legislative priorities for the fall session, a time when most in Washington expect there is little chance for major legislation as the nation nears the conclusion of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Foremost on the agenda, officials said, is averting a partial federal government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. That effort has been complicated by Republican Party infighting over how long to extend funding. McConnell and a majority of House Republicans want to set a new deadline in December to craft a year-long spending bill — a position also supported by the White House and congressional Democratic leaders. But a minority of House conservatives favor a stopgap measure that would extend current funding levels into next year, giving a new president and Congress the opportunity to craft long-term spending bills.
Earnest said the meeting represents a chance "to discuss rather long list of priorities Congress needs to address. It’s hard to rank them in priority order because so many of them are important and the failure of Congress to act on some of these priority would have a significant negative impact on the American people."
The budget issue appears on track to get resolved in tandem with a compromise on Zika funding in the coming weeks. The Senate agreed on a $1.1 billion Zika funding package in May, but the House passed an alternative $1.1 billion measure that Democrats oppose because it blocks funding to a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Puerto Rico. That bill has been filibustered by Senate Democrats since June, but negotiators say there has been progress toward a resolution.
Obama also is likely to urge congressional leaders to hold a vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade accord that the administration completed last year. The pact, which requires congressional ratification, has been stalled on Capitol Hill amid deep skepticism about trade deals among segments of the American electorate. Both major candidates to replace Obama, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, have said they oppose the deal.
Obama touted the TPP during his trip to China and Laos last week, and he has vowed to press lawmakers to vote on the package during an expected lame-duck session of Congress after the Nov. 8 elections.
Earnest said that criminal justice reform and the president's nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court — a nomination Congress has not acted on — also could be discussed at the meeting.
Asked whether Obama would bring up the $2.8 billion in federal aid requested by Louisiana Gov. Bel Edwards (D) to help with recovery efforts after damaging, widespread flooding, Earnest noted the criticism from some Republicans last month when Obama did not interrupt his vacation to visit the state. The president did visit after returning to Washington.
"There’s been a lot of moralizing," Earnest told reporters at the White House daily briefing. "The question now is whether Republicans in Congress will do their jobs. They just got back from an uninterrupted seven-week vacation. Are they going to do right by the people of Louisiana?"