Congress on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly 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.
It is the first override of Obama’s presidency.
The votes in the House and Senate amounted to a sweeping, bipartisan rejection of pleas from the White House to back the president, with administration officials arguing the legislation poses a national security threat by exposing U.S. officials to similar lawsuits abroad.
“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.
Some members of Congress in recent days expressed misgivings about the bill and signaled a willingness consider changes, but that angst did little to alter the vote tallies in either chamber.
The Senate vote was 97 to 1 and the House tally was 348 to 77.
Traveling aboard Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the vote “the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983,” when Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Reagan’s veto of an Oregon land transfer bill.
“Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today,” Earnest said, noting that at least one GOP senator said some of his colleagues had failed to read the bill before voting on it initially. “To have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is in itself embarrassing.”
Obama, speaking at a CNN town hall with members of the military in Fort Lee, Va., later said he considered the override “a mistake” but added, “I understand why it happened. All of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.”
“I wish Congress would have done what’s hard,” he said. “My job as commander-in-chief is to make sure we are looking ahead on how this will impact our overall mission.”
The bill would allow courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in situations involving acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.
Obama’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill provided scant support for the president’s position with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) casting the lone vote to sustain the veto after receiving a letter from the president arguing the consequences of an override could be “devastating.”
In the letter, which Obama sent Tuesday to both Reid and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the president said that he was “fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11” but the legislation would put military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The bill’s enactment, he warned, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of of our response to such attacks.”
Reid voted against the override despite telling reporters earlier this month that “I support that legislation” and Schumer’s efforts.
“He’s always had the president’s back,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the president called the majority leader after the override vote was scheduled, but neither the conservation nor the letter did anything to change his mind.
In the House, 59 Democrats and 18 Republicans voted to back the president’s position.
The sharp rebuke of the president’s veto is a sign that Saudi Arabia’s fortunes are waning on Capitol Hill. 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 Saudi Arabia should not be concerned if it did nothing wrong.
Last week, the Senate voted on a resolution to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it stops targeting civilians in Yemen.
“This is not a time when U.S.-Saudi relations have much popular support on either side,” said F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. Just as the Saudis think the administration has tilted too closely to Iran, he said, many U.S. politicians blame Saudi Arabia for the globe spread of Sunni extremism. “I think that’s really simplistic.”
Both chambers passed the 9/11 legislation without dissent earlier this year. But now, several lawmakers are echoing the White House 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.
Critics of the bill are now focusing on how to scale back the measure once it becomes law. Approximately 20 senators have signed a letter expressing their intention to return to the issue during the lame duck session if the new law generates negative consequences.
“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, before the vote.
Corker is one of several members who argue the bill 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.
Yet he and other senators who expressed similar concerns elected, in the end, to vote for the override.
Sen. Angus King (I-Me.) said he voted for the override because “concrete benefit” for the 9/11 victims’ families outweighed “speculative detriment” to American officials and foreign relations.
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.
Critics guessed their colleagues might be more open to scaling back the measure after observing any international “blowback” once it becomes law. Corker said he is working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) — who also supported the override Wednesday — in the hopes that “during the lame duck, maybe there’s a way to be successful in tightening this up.”
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.
Supporters have not warmed to any of the proposals critics are floating and 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.”
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview that it could take time to grasp the bill’s full implications, and there may be “some time to tweak the law before some of the most damaging consequences become clear.”
“But the biggest issue is that it opens up government agencies to court-ordered discovery,” Alterman said, adding that the federal government could face lawsuits from those who have been victims of drone strikes and other American military activities. “It’s not limited to Saudi Arabia, and it’s likely to have a much larger impact on the U.S. government than the Saudi government, because the U.S. government takes rules very seriously.”
While White House staffers have reached out to certain members of Congress, 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.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.