President Obama plans 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 government of Saudi Arabia, a White House spokesman said Monday.
Obama did not mention his opposition to the bill, which would let courts waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, during brief remarks to reporters after meeting with congressional leaders. Administration officials cited fears that foreign governments might exploit the legislation 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 suggested that they would try to override a veto, and they 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. “The president feels quite strongly about this.”
The announcement came hours before Obama held a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office with congressional leaders in a bid to forge agreement on averting a government shutdown and funding to combat the Zika virus.
Obama’s first meeting with both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) since February came a week after lawmakers returned to Washington from a seven-week summer recess. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also attended.
The president laid out his priorities — including federal funding for flood relief in Louisiana, an Asia Pacific trade deal and criminal-justice reform — at a time when most in Washington expect there is little chance for collaboration on major legislation before the November presidential election.
“There’s still business to be done,” Obama said. “My hope is that we can make some modest progress.”
Foremost on the agenda, Obama said, is averting a partial federal government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year on 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 plans.
The budget issue appears on track to get resolved in tandem with a compromise on Zika funding. 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.
The House passed the 9/11 victims’ legislation by voice vote on Friday, with members calling it a “moral imperative” to allow families to seek justice for the deaths of loved ones. The Senate had approved the legislation in May.
On Sunday, a group of Sept. 11 attack 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 there are bigger issues at play than the pending lawsuit. Officials have emphasized the need to maintain the tradition of extending sovereign immunity to foreign officials, for the sake of ensuring that 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 attack.
Saudi Arabia has been lobbying hard against the legislation, even threatening to sell off U.S. assets. Earnest acknowledged that Obama’s stance could anger the families of Americans who died in the terrorist attacks 15 years ago.
But he added that Obama’s “words and deeds when standing up for the interests of the 9/11 families speak for themselves,” citing the U.S. military raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, among other things.