The Senate on Wednesday voted to override President Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, striking a blow to Obama on foreign policy months before he leaves office. The 97-1 vote marks the first time the Senate has mustered enough support to overrule Obama’s veto pen. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was the sole vote to sustain Obama’s veto. Not a single Democrat came to the Senate floor before the vote to argue in favor of Obama’s position.
Lawmakers don’t want to be seen as soft on punishing sponsors of terrorism a few weeks before the elections and at a time when voters are increasingly worried about radical Islamic terrorism in the wake of recent attacks in New York, Minnesota and Florida.
The House will take up the matter next, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters last week that he expects there be to enough votes for an override.
The legislation, sponsored by Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would create an exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allowing the victims of terrorism to sue foreign sponsors of attacks on U.S. soil.
It was crafted primarily at the urging of the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who want to sue Saudi Arabian officials if they are found to have links to the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
It passed the Senate and House unanimously in May and September, respectively, but without roll-call votes.
“This is pretty much close to a miraculous occurrence because Democrats and Republicans, senators [and] House members have all agreed [on] the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which give the victims of a terrorist attack on our won soil an opportunity to seek the justice they deserve,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Obama warned in a veto message to the Senate last week that the bill would improperly give legal plaintiffs and the courts authority over complex and sensitive questions of state-sponsored terrorism.
He also cautioned that it would undermine protections for U.S. military, intelligence and foreign service personnel serving overseas, as well as possibly subject U.S. government assets to seizure.
Obama sent a letter to Senate leaders reiterating his concerns.
“The consequences of JASTA could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members — and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities,” he wrote in the letter, which was later circulated by a public affairs company working for the embassy of Saudi Arabia.
Cornyn argued that Obama has mischaracterized the bill.
“He cites concerns that the bill would ‘create complications,’ he says, with some of our close partners, but the truth is JASTA only targets foreign governments who sponsor terrorist attacks on American soil, plain and simple,” he said.
The Saudi Embassy and a high-priced team of lobbyists it hired waged an intense campaign to persuade lawmakers to sustain the override, but it came too late.
The White House seemed to have recognized it as a lost battle and put in less effort, according to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who on Tuesday characterized the administration’s lobbying effort as zero.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he discussed the legislation with Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned of the foreign policy complications it posed during a trip they took Monday to Colombia to attend the signing of a peace accord.
“I clearly believe, looking at the current status of international terrorism which is much different than when the sovereign immunity bills were passed, that you can’t let sovereign immunity be the shield for those who are responsible or contribute to terrorism,” Cardin said.
Senators who are worried about the risk posed by the bill to U.S. personnel in foreign countries huddled on the Senate floor Tuesday to discuss passing additional legislation to protect them.
These lawmakers acknowledged the 9/11 victims bill had too much political momentum to stop weeks before Election Day, especially after both chambers approved it unanimously.
“The focus right now is how can we over a period of time create some corrective legislation to deal with whatever blowback might occur,” Corker said.
Ryan told reporters last week that he had concerns with the legislation but said he would nevertheless allow it to come to the floor.
“I’m going to let Congress work its will because that’s what Congress does. I do think the votes are there for the override,” he said.
The veto override is a big win for Schumer, whose home state bore the worst of the 9/11 attacks.
“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 hold accountable foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from them the lives of their loved ones,” Schumer said on the floor.
He co-sponsored the bill when it was first introduced in December 2009 by the late Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).
Schumer revived the bill last year by teaming up with Cornyn, a fellow member of the Judiciary Committee. They overcame an early objection from colleagues by empowering the president to pause a lawsuit against a foreign government if the administration proves good-faith effort to reach a settlement are underway.
H/T The Hill