Congress Votes to Override Obama Veto on 9/11 Victims Bill
An overwhelming majority in Congress on Wednesday overturned President Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot, the first successful override vote of his presidency.
The 9/11 override is a remarkable yet complicated bipartisan rebuttal, even as some of its supporters conceded that they did not fully support the legislation they had just voted for. Mr. Obama and his allies vowed to find a way to tweak the legislation later.
In recent days, Mr. Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all wrote letters to Congress warning of the dangers of overriding the veto.
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The law “could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members,” Mr. Obama wrote, “and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities.” The White House and some lawmakers were already plotting how they could weaken the law in the near future.
Yet most of Mr. Obama’s greatest allies on Capitol Hill, who have labored for nearly eight years to stop most bills he opposes from even crossing his desk, turned against him, joining Republicans in the remonstrance.
“This is a decision I do not take lightly,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and one of the authors of this legislation. “This bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker, because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice, finally giving them a legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from them the lives of their loved ones.”
Only one senator, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, siding with the president as 97 others voted Wednesday to override. In the House, the veto override was approved a few hours later, 348 to 77.
The bill succeeded not with significant congressional debate or intense pressure from voters, but rather through the sheer will of the victims’ families, who seized on the 15th anniversary of the attack and an election year to lean on members of Congress. That effort was aided by the waning patience of lawmakers with the kingdom in recent years.
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The Senate vote also represents another White House miscalculation on Capitol Hill, where it was once again slow to pressure members and to see the cracks in its firewall against the bill.
Further, the veto override, while thrilling to many Republicans, came on a bill that was far from the Republicans’ priorities of unraveling the health care law and pushing back on government regulations. Nor was it a measure they had hoped to secure with the president’s help, like overhauling the tax code or passing a major trade agreement.
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, gave voice to the unusual ambivalence that many members of Congress have expressed since they together unanimously passed the bill.
“I do want to say I don’t think the Senate nor House has functioned in an appropriate manner as it relates to a very important piece of legislation,” said Mr. Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who presumably could have played a role in the hearings and debate he said went lacking. “I have tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that would be set in place by the countries as a result of this vote,” which he then cast.
The measure would amend a 1976 law that granted other countries broad immunity from American lawsuits, allowing nations to be sued in federal court if they are found to have played any role in terrorist attacks that killed Americans on United States soil.
For several weeks this summer, a handful of Republican senators blocked the bill as they worked to soften its impact.
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They managed to add a provision that would allow the executive branch to halt the litigation if the executive branch proved in court that good-faith negotiations for a settlement with a nation were underway. This would preserve the executive branch’s purview over foreign policy while still giving a pathway for family members to sue.
The Senate then voted unanimously to pass the bill and send it to the House, with many lawmakers and many White House officials believing that the House would never take up the legislation. Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin has made skeptical remarks about the measure, and Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary committee, did little with it.
Then earlier this month, Mr. Ryan, who had encountered families of the Sept. 11 victims at a fund-raiser on Long Island, reversed suddenly his usual position of bringing no major bill to the House floor that had not passed muster with the relevant committee, and put the bill on a fast track. The House voted hastily and overwhelmingly in favor, sending it to Mr. Obama’s desk.
This led to some of the bill’s co-sponsors to express fear that it would actually become law.
The bill’s path reflects a growing desire to re-examine Washington’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, which for decades has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and deep ambivalence, especially among Republicans, of how to move forward.
Shortly before the vote to override, for instance, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, fast-tracked a vote on a measure that sought to block the sale of some tanks to the kingdom, which failed, signaling to Saudi Arabia that Congress had not turned its back on the nation.
Saudi Arabia has warned the Obama administration and members of Congress that the law could force them to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets to avoid them from being seized in court settlements. Next came the argument, made by the kingdom’s phalanx of lobbyists, that the law would expose the United States to lawsuits abroad and possibly cause complications for its armed forces.
That view was rejected on the Senate floor Wednesday. “This is pretty much close to a miraculous occurrence,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and one of the biggest champions of the measure, noting how divided Congress is generally along partisan lines. “All of us have come together and agreed that this is appropriate and the right thing to do,” he said.
The Senate vote was less a swipe at Saudi Arabia, he added, and more about giving victims a voice. “When our interests diverge and it’s a question of protecting American rights and American values, I think we should do that,” he said. “This is not about severing our relationship with any ally. This is simply a matter of justice.” source
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